By Desmond Mpilo Tutu

Doubleday. 287 pp. $23.95

Too often, those who tally our century's grim record of deceit, corruption, war and genocide leave out the unprecedented responses to those evils, including truth, accountability, nonviolence and human rights. But in the bloody aftermath of conflicts such as those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Kosovo, many despair of being able to preserve these values in doing justice to perpetrators and victims.

When are war crimes tribunals not only appropriate but feasible? What role can truth commissions play in addressing war crimes and state-sponsored violations of human rights? Is across-the-board amnesty ever the only way to collective survival?

These are among the questions illuminated by Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu in "No Future Without Forgiveness." Tutu combines careful analysis of the issues with vivid personal accounts of his experiences under apartheid and as chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After broad public debate and study of the strengths and weaknesses of past tribunals and commissions, the panel began holding hearings across South Africa in September 1995, at a time of widespread fear that the tensions built up during decades of brutal apartheid rule could issue in a bloodbath. No small part of the credit for the commission's achievements goes to Tutu.

Some asked, why not have full-scale criminal trials such as those at Nuremberg? Or, on the contrary, why not simply start afresh and let bygones be bygones? Tutu answers that there would have been no negotiated settlement in South Africa if one side had insisted on bringing to trial all who had committed human rights violations; it was also clear that the country could not afford to shift resources from desperate needs for housing, health care and education to costly trials. But it would have been equally unwise to declare blanket amnesty, as the Pinochet regime had done in Chile before relinquishing power: "Unless we look the beast in the eye, we find that it has an uncanny habit of returning and holding us hostage."

Instead, the country's negotiators opted to grant conditional amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of crimes. It seems clear that the massive record of torture, abductions, rapes and murders established during the commission's hearings will make it impossible to rewrite history or to deny that they had taken place.

Having sorted through the commission's successes and failures, Tutu proposes that its experience can help other communities ravaged by violence. It offers a way, he suggests, to confront head-on the debilitating hatred between embittered adversaries in conflicts such as those in Rwanda, Ireland and the Middle East, and to avoid the dehumanization that such hatred breeds.

South Africans' refusal to live in denial is an indispensable advantage. The country is beset by some of the world's highest levels of crime, including those for rape, assault and homicide, as well as of mortality due to AIDS. Unlike the suffering imposed by apartheid, this misery is not state-sponsored, but it is too often officially neglected or brushed aside and will be overcome only if addressed with equal honesty and compassion and full recognition of the victims' humanity.

Most controversial for many readers will be Tutu's advocacy of forgiveness, of "abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin." As the title of his book indicates, Tutu sees no viable future for individuals or societies that cling to hatred and vengefulness. He recognizes, however, that forgiveness cannot be mandated by any court or commission, any more than genuine regret for crimes committed; and he explores with fairness and compassion the sense of injustice many feel in even speaking of forgiveness for rapists and torturers.

Tutu's answer derives in part from his religious conviction, in part from having witnessed countless examples of how genuine forgiveness restores human dignity. To forgive, he suggests, is not just altruism; it is also the best form of self-interest: "It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."

Sissela Bok, whose book "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" was reissued this fall in a 20-year edition with a new preface.