Truth and reconciliation commissions across the globe have a spotty record of rooting out and punishing human rights violators, but that hasn’t stopped academics from suggesting such a body should be investigating U.S. actions in the war on terror.
At a public forum to debate the effectiveness of truth and reconciliation commissions Thursday, University of Massachusetts-Boston professor Padraig O’Malley drew applause when he suggested controversial post-9/11 practices, such extra-judicial rendition and indefinite detention might merit further investigation.
“Is the day coming when the U.S., too, will stand before an international tribunal and have to answer for what it’s done?” he wondered aloud.
O’Malley, the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor for Peace and Reconciliation at UMass-Boston, spoke before a packed audience that included representatives from war-torn regions like Northern Ireland, Serbia and El Salvador. He and a panel of seven experts weighed the pros and cons of truth and reconciliation commissions, and wondered aloud whether they can really help heal over divisions in places like Northern Ireland, Iraq, or the U.S.
The panel discussion, “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Do They Do Justice to Justice?” was hosted by the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston. The forum capped a three-day conference on the topic and brought together academics, diplomats and politicians to talk about their experiences working with truth commissions and dealing with their aftermath.
Truth commissions gained international attention with the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid 1990s. But the commissions have also been used in countries like Rwanda, Chile, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Overall, the results of the commissions have been mixed, O’Malley concedes. “They've proven relatively successful in some instances, and not too successful in others,” he says.
Some survivors of civil strife agree. Panel member Jose Maria Argueta was kidnapped three times in the course of Guatemala's three-decade civil war — the first time when he was only nine years old.
“My father was the Secretary of Education,” Arguetta recalls. “They were after him, and I happened to be with him.”
Those experiences made Argueta appreciate the traumas inflicted on societies by decades of war and civil strife, as well as the need for reconciliation to heal the wounds. But when it comes to the results of Guatemala's own Historical Clarification Commission, he's less sympathetic.
“Did (the Historical Clarification Commission) do justice to justice? Guatemala is still not a country that can provide opportunities for all, or where people understand that we have a future together,” said Argueta, who is currently teaching at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass.
Like many truth commissions, Guatemala's was hampered by the circumstances of its birth. Created as part of a brokered peace accord to end the country's civil war in 1994, the Commission's warrant was both vague and broad. Little thought was given to how to implement it. The reconciliation process also failed to extend to international players such as the Soviet Union, which armed anti-government forces and used the country as a proxy in the Cold War for decades.
“The war had an ideological background and there were external forces at play – international actors that were not considered as part of the commission,” Argueta said.
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission interviewed 22,000 victims and received 7,000 applications for amnesty, according to Mary Burton, one of 17 commissioners appointed by then-president Nelson Mandela. The process produced a few “remarkable instances of forgiveness” between victims and their tormentors, Burton says.
But the South African government fell short on prosecutions of high-level members of the military and police forces after the Commission's work was done, Burton adds. When prosecutions did proceed, they were narrowly focused, with plea deals generous enough to undermine the value of earlier amnesty grants.
Burton, who was chairwoman of a committee that heard about gross violations of human rights, says she felt a sense of failure when her work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded. “My expectations had been so high,” she says.
But “good enough” often has to do in countries that are emerging from war and civil strife. In Chile in the late 1980s, The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation worked under the shadow of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose administration it was investigating, and who threatened to end democratic reform if he or his supporters became the targets of legal prosecutions, said Mark Ensalaco of the University of Dayton.
In the end, however, the commission's work and its report contributed to the defeat of a culture of impunity in Chile, which would eventually file criminal charges against General Pinochet for human rights abuses.
The U.S. is no stranger to truth and reconciliation commissions, either. Greensboro, N.C. established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate The Greensboro Massacre, a 1979 shooting of five political organizers by suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan.
That group issued a detailed report in May 2006 that found the Klansmen largely responsible for the incident, but also assigned some blame to the victims themselves. The Greensboro commission saves its harshest criticism for the local police and the FBI who investigated the case.
Attendees heard that many places such as Northern Ireland remain unready for such probes.
“We're not ready yet,” says Ryan Gawn of Belfast, a political lobbyist who was one of a large delegation from Northern Ireland who attended the conference.
Gawn says in his country, which ended decades of strife with the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, “victims' groups want to know the truth of what happened, and there's public support for that. But there's very little support for it in the political class.”
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