Beyond Collective Denial: Public Reactions to Human Rights Violations and the Struggle over the Moral Continuity of Communities

Part of the Peace Psychology Book Series book series (PPBS, volume 17)


This chapter focuses on a particular aspect of social reconstruction and reconciliation processes: how can institutional frameworks for prosecuting human rights violations help post-war communities to avoid plunging into a climate of anomy, which can be highly detrimental for both individual well-being and render societies more vulnerable to future instability and violence? The creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993 was based on the assumptions that the formal prosecution of severe human rights breaches as violations of international law helps to prevent further violence and that it facilitates post-war reconciliation processes. Seeking empirical indications of the impact of trials on communities, the authors propose a framework for analysing the relationships between the institutionalisation of human rights and psychosocial dynamics that are facilitative of their actual implementation, across the former Yugoslavia. Their findings support the assumption that collective reactions to human rights violations reflect public concerns about generalised moral ambiguity. A central motive of these concerns is to avoid a symbolic climate that potentially leads to social disintegration and psychological distress. Those individuals for whom psychological discomfort associated with a sense of anomy is the most salient, as well as those who perceive most vividly the need to preserve fundamental values of the community, are more likely to embrace condemnations of human rights violations. The strongest levels of public support for the prosecution of human rights violations were found within those contexts in which an institutional framework for sanctioning violations is the most salient. Further, the results stress that collective experiences of human rights violations predict moral worldviews when individual experiences are aggregated within communities based on a sense of common identity. These findings are consistent with the idea that symbolic dynamics resulting in collective reactions to human rights violations emerge within communities that are concerned and potentially mobilised by the threat posed to their internal cohesion by outrageous practices, precisely because their members share a relevant identity.


Former Yugoslavia War Social reconstruction Social representations Rights violations Anomy Community Public support 


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social and Political SciencesSwiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES at the University of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland

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