The honest truth

Stephen Cole

How does a nation that has been divided by hostilities move on once peace is declared? ‘Truth commissions’ try to find a middle ground between collective amnesia and Nuremberg-style trials

Michael Stone was one of the most violent men ever to walk the streets of Northern Ireland. He murdered in cold blood. Television cameras once recorded his attack on mourners at a funeral. He fired his gun and threw grenades at fellow Irishmen and women at Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery killing three people in 1988. 

His notoriety meant he became a cult hero in Protestant communities for deliberately slaughtering Roman Catholics. He was described as being the ultimate example of the truth that Protestant and Catholic would never be reconciled. 

I was at the Maze Prison in 2000 when he was released. He was saluted like a returning warrior by thousands of cheering supporters. Six years later I watched a remarkable scene as the Nobel Peace Prizewinner Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the crimes of the apartheid era – brokered a meeting between Stone, the former paramilitary, and the relatives of those he had been convicted of killing. 

The war – often called, euphemistically, the ‘Troubles’ – has a particular resonance for me. At the age of 19, I decided to turn down university and instead sign my indentures – my apprenticeship – in journalism with Caters News Agency in Birmingham, UK. Just three months later, on 21 November 1974, I was in the city the night when the largest bombs to explode in mainland Britain since World War II killed 21 people and injured hundreds more. 

The devices were placed in two central Birmingham pubs – the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town. The placing of the bombs by the IRA – the Irish Republican Army – in the Tavern was particularly cynical as it was an underground pub and the damage caused was far worse. From the bar I was in I heard the ‘dull thumps’ of the explosions and ran towards the first sirens. 

It was a scene of carnage and it was my journalistic baptism of fire. I covered the story that night and its lengthy and complex aftermath. The bombings created a wave of anti-Irish sentiment and there were some attacks on the Irish community. A few days later, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was swiftly introduced by the British government. For me that signalled the beginning of three decades of covering the ‘Troubles’. 

Many years later I was watching the killer Stone meet and talk to the widow and brother of one of the people he had shot dead. It was a moment of high emotion, tension and truth. Towards the end of the meeting, the widow stunned us all – not least Stone, Archbishop Tutu and the watching television crew – when she stood up and reached out to shake Stone’s hand. 

Tutu said: “We had some extraordinary moments in the week or so that we were here, where it was like something divine had intervened, and it was exhausting but eminently exhilarating. I think human beings are incredible… and I’ve seen examples here of the fact that it really is possible that we will see a resolution of the problems and people will say, as we did in South Africa, why were we so stupid for so long? 

“I have a good sense that Northern Ireland is going to be held up one day as a place where we thought the problems were intractable and you see they were intractable – just look at how well they’re getting on together.” 

Sadly his words didn’t quite match the expectation. So far 3,000 people have died and many people are still carrying around the painful memories and deep resentment that will take considerable healing. The future of Northern Ireland’s past looks just as troubled. 

In mid-August 2013 there were riots in the centre of Belfast over whether or not Loyalist marchers could parade down certain streets. More than 50 police officers were injured. The Police Federation for Northern Ireland called for all parades, by both sides, to be stopped for six months. In short, it is difficult to imagine two communities further apart than Unionists and Republicans. Even at the most fundamental level, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. 

Despite the Nobel Prizes and attempts at truth and reconciliation, the tribalism certainly isn’t forgotten and many wounds are still not healed. Over the years, there have been frequent calls for a similar commission to the South African example to work in Northern Ireland. A truth commission or truth and reconciliation commission is an investigative body tasked with discovering and revealing wrongdoing in the hope of resolving conflict from the past. 

They are, under various names, occasionally set up by states emerging from periods of internal unrest, civil war or dictatorship. Since 1973, more than 20 ‘truth commissions’ have been established around the world, with the majority (15) created between 1974 and 1994. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and is popularly considered a model of truth commissions. 

Dealing with past wrongs is not just a political matter, but rather a process of social reflection by which society comes to terms with its past. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up after the defeat of apartheid and helped in the process of developing political strategies for a new South African society. Grave atrocities had been committed by the apartheid regimes and, in retaliation, considerable violence was undertaken by black groups against the whites, with everyone caught up in this cycle of violence. 

The commission was set up and based in Cape Town. The hearings started in 1996 and dealt with crimes committed during the apartheid era, between 1960 and 1994. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as to handle reparation and rehabilitation. Merely bringing perpetrators to court was not enough to resolve the deep social and political problems faced by the South African society. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission adopted the concept of restorative justice – an attempt to restore the dignity of the people and social relationships that were destroyed by societal violence. Did it work? The commission was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy and, despite some flaws, it is generally thought to have been successful. 

As Thabo Mbeki said in 1997, within the ANC the cry was “to catch the bastards and hang them”. He added: “Had there been the threat of Nuremberg-style trials for members of the apartheid state security establishment, we would never have undergone a peaceful change.” 

The result was a compromise – what Tutu called a “third way” between national amnesia and criminal prosecutions. The new government decided that it would indeed offer amnesties for past crimes, but not the kind of blanket immunity that preceded the truth commission in Chile or followed the ones in Argentina and El Salvador. 

But despite limitations, the South African model spawned other commissions, with some success. At the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, there is a world map showing all the truth and reconciliation commissions. The first stone was laid by President Michelle Bachelet, who was a victim of torture during the dictatorship of Pinochet in 2008. 

My journey began at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. Each room has a unique layout. For example, the first room you reach is focused on Human Rights – the universal challenge. In Room 2 the space is dedicated to the military coup of 11 September 1973 – Chile’s own 9/11. Room 3 explores the End of the Rule of Law, Rooms 5 and 6 focus Repression and Torture and the Pain of the Children. 

But it is on the second level that the hope returns. In Room 7, there was Truth and Justice, Rooms 8 and 9 feature Absence and Memory and the Fight for Freedom. Your walk ends in Rooms 10 and 11 dedicated to Return to Hope and Never Again. 

And that’s a constant theme of truth and reconciliation. The hope that what has gone on before will never be repeated. It has worked for some but there are still the critics who accuse commissions of burying the past and allowing those guilty of the worst crimes to escape justice. 

In the past 30 years I have covered many wars and divisive conflicts in the Falklands, East Timor, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Rwanda, South Africa and, most recently, Sri Lanka. For a long period, the Sri Lankan government considered burying the past to be the best policy to avoid any surfacing of unhealed wounds. But the country quickly realised that that view isn’t sustainable and they understood it was necessary to deal with the past. 

Their commission is called the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, but it’s difficult to see how different it is from previous commissions. 

So does truth reconcile a divided nation? When I went to Sri Lanka to research a story about its post-war society, I asked whether or not the Sinhalese community could ever forgive the numerous suicide bombings and whether the Tamils could forget the slaughters at the end of the war. It was hard to see where bridges were being built and there were no obvious signs of restorative justice, rehabilitation and reconciliation. 

But how do countries decide whether to forgive and forget or prosecute those guilty of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, abuse of power, illegal arrest and detention? There seemed to be severe cases of amnesia on both sides of the divide. Buddhism, the official religion of Sri Lanka, has a rich tradition of truth and reconciliation. It is one of the greatest traditions in terms of this practice. 

Sri Lanka’s human rights record was the most controversial subject in the run-up to CHOGM in mid-November. Geopolitically, the war has already had an impact. Sri Lanka relied heavily on China for military, financial and diplomatic support to end the war and China now has a firm footing in the country and region. 

Two years ago, in September 2011, the Ivory Coast adopted the idea of truth and reconciliation. Its full title was the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission, which was aimed at forging unity after the deadly violence that followed disputed elections, when about 3,000 people were killed and 500,000 displaced in the unrest. The Prime Minister led the commission, which included religious leaders as well as a famous footballer – Didier Drogba! But there were many uncertainties about how it would work. That, combined with the disadvantage of being set up so soon after the violence ended, meant the commission made little recognisable progress. But some commissions allow newly democratic nations to investigate the crimes of the past, overturning the lies told by previous regimes to cover up their abuses. 

Most importantly – and this helps explain both their popularity and controversy – truth commissions do all of this without holding trials. This lack of trials is an essential aspect of the commissions’ identity and a lightning rod for supporters and critics alike. The commissions generally operate without judges, courtrooms and the cumbersome trappings (and safeguards) of legal procedure. 

Unlike courts, they do not seek punishment or retribution. Often given the power to grant some form of amnesty, their task is to uncover just what happened to whom in the past, and why. Who did it, however, is rarely stressed. Few truth commissions name names of violators, and when they do it is for purposes of moral and perhaps social censure – but never legal retribution. 

One important unanswered question is how can they best build on grass-roots practices of reconciliation, reintegration and healing to develop a new generation of commissions that are more locally effective in dealing with the aftermath of conflicts? And another crucial question: do the people who have taken part feel satisfied with the outcome or are they just happy to have told their grievance to someone? When a commission fails, as they have done in some countries, the way forward is often to separate ‘truth and reconciliation’ and to form a new twin-track process. 

If the coupling together of ‘truth and reconciliation’ has prevented either issue getting out of the station because of the deadlock on the past – why not let reconciliation move forward separately? They are two parallel processes, but one is clearly able to move forward at a faster rate than the other. Often the process can only move forward where agreement is possible. The more divisive issues are laid aside for later consideration. 

Some families in Sri Lanka told me the stories of their experiences. Some were victims and some weren’t satisfied with the outcomes. But when I asked what would be a better process – a more efficacious outcome – they didn’t have an answer. 

In Northern Ireland some agree the only way to move forward, in peace, is forgiveness. And that, one priest told me once in Belfast, has to come from within, not from a quasi-political process. 

Recently I returned to Sri Lanka and as part of my journey drove up to see the military war cemetery in Kandy. I went there because my father had served in the King’s African Rifles and I remembered him telling me some of his regiment were buried there. 

It is an immaculate cemetery with carefully tended lawns and colourful borders. As I walked alongside the headstones looking at the names and dates, a gardener approached me and asked if I was looking for anyone in particular. As we walked, I asked him about the recent war and his attitude towards peace and/or reconciliation. Oh yes, he agreed, he was absolutely for peace and reconciliation. You only have to work here at the cemetery, he said, to see what the alternative is. 

And then he added, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness are all very important to remember. The really hard part, he said, was forgetting. 


About the author:

Stephen Cole is one of the most recognisable international broadcasters, having anchored and directed world news, technology stories and programmes since 1989. He presented the launch of Sky News and is now a senior anchor with Al Jazeera International


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