040_G17 Arena

Global_17

Arena Politics room you reach is focused on Human Rights – the universal challenge. How do countries decide whether to forgive and forget or prosecute those guilty of forced disappearances, torture and abuse of power?  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. 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 40 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2014 global


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