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The Amnesty Law Database.

Introduction to the Amnesty Law Database

The Amnesty Law Database was created by Louise Mallinder as part of her doctoral research (2003-6), and developed as part of the AHRC-funded Beyond Legalism project (Ref AH/E008984/1). The database was designed to collate and compare data on amnesty laws that have been introduced since the end of the Second World War. As of February 2010, the database contains information on over 500 amnesty laws in 138 countries that were introduced between 1945 and February 2010. For each amnesty process, where possible, the database contains information on how the amnesty was enacted, what its effects were, how it was implemented, what crimes it covered, whom it benefited, and whether there were conditions attached.

This database seeks to enhance global understandings and debates on amnesty laws by broadening discussions beyond high profile amnesty processes in the Americas and South Africa to consider state practice in other regions of the world and more recent examples of amnesty legislation. The database also aims to illustrate the diversity of forms that amnesties. The data gathered should be useful to researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines including transitional justice, international criminal law, conflict transformation, peace studies, development studies, criminology and international relations. It is also hoped that researchers and practitioners from these disciplines will contribute to enhancing some of the profiles on the Amnesty Law Database by suggesting amendments or recommending supplementary materials for inclusion.

Criteria for Inclusion

At the international level, the term ‘amnesty’ lacks clarity as domestic legal rules governing amnesty laws differ considerably. In addition, the term ‘amnesty’ is often popularly used to describe situations that are not the subject of this study, for example, amnesties for owners of dangerous weapons in the United Kingdom, or for illegal immigrants in many states.

The Amnesty Law Database contains information only on amnesties that have occurred since the Second World War and which relate to violent political crises. These can include civil unrest, military coups, international or internal conflict, authoritarian government, or states that are transitioning from such crises. Within amnesties in these contexts, the beneficiaries can range from members of the armed forces and public officials, to insurgents and resistance fighters, to political prisoners, and to refugees. This study, rather than sampling, seeks to include all amnesty laws introduced by states that meet these criteria to facilitate a comprehensive and up-to-date comparison.

In addition, where amnesty measures were combined with other forms of leniency, such as non-judicial processes, pardons or early release schemes this is also noted in the Amnesty Law Database. Although such processes are not strictly speaking amnesties, it was decided that they should be incorporated into the database as they allow for the avoidance of penal sanctions and could illustrate some innovative approaches to the question of amnesty.

Documentary Analysis

A wide-range of documentary sources have been used to compile the information within the Amnesty Law Database and to identify the categorisations employed. These sources include:

  • Domestic legislation
  • Academic writing
  • Jurisprudence from national and international courts
  • International treaties
  • Opinions given by treaty-monitoring bodies
  • Statements by intergovernmental organisations
  • Reports by states (particularly Country Reports on Human Rights Practices from the US Department of State)
  • Reports by NGOs (particularly Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch)
  • Newspaper articles

Using documentary methods made it possible to acquire information on a large number of amnesty laws. In addition, for the case study jurisdictions in the Beyond Legalism project, documentary evidence was supplemented by fieldwork. For each amnesty profile in the database, the descriptions were drawn from a range of sources and readers are encouraged to consult the list of sources at the end of each profile.

Due to the variety of documentary sources employed, problems were occasionally encountered regarding confidence in the materials. For example, there were differing translations of court cases or legislation and there was bias and inaccuracy in some sources, especially newspaper articles and government publications. It was particularly difficult to gauge the reliability of certain newspapers as they were obtained from the Lexis-Nexis news archives, which contain a variety of local and regional publications. To try to combat these problems, efforts were made to base the description of each case on as wide a variety of sources as possible, using the information that was most frequently occurring amongst these sources.

In addition, for some amnesties, particularly those in South Africa and the Americas, there was a relative abundance of information, whereas in other instances, it was much harder to obtain detailed information on amnesty. This was due to factors such as language difficulties, the time that had elapsed since the amnesty was introduced, the lack of transparency in the state concerned, or a relative lack of academic research on the relevant transitional state. Where possible, efforts were made to contact individuals working in these countries, including civil servants, academics, and NGO workers to obtain information.

However, due to the limitations in accessing sufficient data on some amnesty processes, the Beyond Legalism team hope that by putting this database online, we can trigger a collaborative effort in researching amnesties and would gratefully appreciate any suggestions of additional sources or corrections, and of course any contributions will be acknowledged in the list of sources of the relevant amnesty profile(s).

Classification Process

The selection of the categories with the database was based upon the international legal standards, the issues that arose from the secondary sources relating to each amnesty law, and from frequently occurring elements within amnesty legislation.

Classifying amnesty laws provides a means of systematically compiling information from a wide variety of sources, it structures the analysis and facilitates comparison between the amnesty processes and the identification of trends over time and across regions. This method tends to emphasise the similarities between the approaches taken by governments and courts. However, as each state is undergoing, or has undergone, a unique transition, their amnesty laws often have unique characteristics either in the scope or how they were implemented.

Database hosted on webservice.

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