Tucked away inside the National Restaurant Association building within the heart of Washington D.C. is a little known government funded nonprofit organization - the United States Institute of Peace. Its origins can be traced back to the late 1700’s when discussions were held on the creation of an institution dedicated to “promoting and preserving perpetual peace.” By the mid 1900’s, over 140 bills would be introduced in Congress towards the establishment of a governmental agency for Peace. After the efforts of so many for almost two centuries, a nonpartisan group headed by Senator Sparks Matsunaga of Hawaii worked to establish an independent framework of operations for a national peace academy and in 1984, the United States Institute of Peace Act was signed into law.
Considered a national asset, this unique organization’s specific mandate is to work exclusively on the issues of peace and conflict resolution. The approach is both comprehensive and holistic: research towards developing best practices, field consultancy, and the teaching of innovative conflict resolution skills are simultaneously used towards building peace both in the U.S. and abroad. Its goals are “to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide.”
The work of the USIP is structured around three primary centers of focus: conflict analysis and prevention, mediation and conflict resolution, and peace building during post-conflict transition. Fundamental to working with the people of any country towards establishing human rights as a basis for building peace is the establishment of ‘rule of law’ as the guideline for due process over totalitarian or mob rule. However, ‘rule of law’ is one of the final products in the establishment of human rights within a country’s legal system. Other well-developed legal procedures are also considered during transition. One of the better known is the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ utilized by South Africa and headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the fall of apartheid.
To use the constitution making process as an example, in a post conflict environment, it is not just a technical exercise but a vehicle for all the competing factions in society to articulate their vision for a new society, to articulate their principles, and to debate with one another what the rules should be, how power should be distributed.
Neil Kritz, editor of the extraordinary three volume treatise “Transitional Justice”, director of USIP’s innovative Rule of Law program, and international law attorney speaks with SuperConsciousness about Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as an important component for helping people and countries move beyond the tragedies perpetrated through gross human rights violations.
SC: How did Truth and Reconciliation Commissions evolve? What is the history of this process?
NK: Truth commissions were first established in circumstances by which the very nature of the abuses or atrocities that occurred meant that the truth was hidden. For instance, in response to the disappearances of large numbers of people in Latin America, Argentina, and Chile, some of the first, most significant truth commissions were established. In those countries, accountability, in a traditional sense, was impossible at the time, particularly with any sort of initial prosecution. One of the key things that members of those societies needed was simply to know the facts of what had occurred. There was a degree of justice for many by simply enabling the process of finding out what happened, what was done to their relatives, their colleagues. These commissions initially served that function.
They also laid the groundwork for subsequent accountability of a traditional nature by establishing the evidence and by collecting information about the actions that took place. But also important was providing a forum for victims to be able to tell their story, to have society acknowledge their victimization, embrace them and make what happened to them, their family, their colleagues, their neighbors, part of the fabric of the national history which would not have occurred otherwise. Recently, though, Truth Commissions are sometimes utilized as a popular response to many problems even when they are not necessarily the most appropriate mechanism.
SC: Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that the Truth and Reconciliation process also serves the purpose of aiding those who have been repressed by showing, most importantly, that they are not ‘non entities’. Openly speaking out about what they have endured seems to be an important part of establishing human rights litigation.
NK: That’s exactly right. Increasingly, what has developed is knowledge and an ability to recognize what is needed after mass atrocities based on the experiences in a number of different countries. These are not simple problems: they are complex, societal problems that generally require an equally complex and customized package of solutions. There is not just one measure or “one size fits all.” What is needed, often times, is some form of criminal accountability, at least for a number of those implicated in the abuses that have occurred. A principle must be established: that there is no impunity, that a page has been turned in that country, and that it is important to find and hold people accountable for those abuses. Subsequently, the truth commission functions importantly by providing a voice for the much larger number of victims who will realistically never get the opportunity to testify in court even when trials are held.
The commissions force a society to really look at itself in the mirror and to look much more broadly at the questions, “How did this happen? How did our society degenerate to this point? And what kinds of reforms need to be undertaken to ensure that these sorts of things don’t occur again?”
They also serve a different function. Criminal trials focus on individual accountability. That’s the task of prosecution. However, truth commissions provide a unique opportunity to understand the trends in that society. What were the institutional problems that existed? What was the role of various sectors, whether it was the military and security forces or whether it was the educational system that created an environment of divisiveness that made the atrocities possible? Was it the role the medical profession played or the legal system, the media or other parts of society that created an environment in which these kinds of abuses occurred? The commissions force a society to really look at itself in the mirror and to look much more broadly at the questions, “How did this happen? How did our society degenerate to this point? And what kinds of reforms need to be undertaken to ensure that these sorts of things don’t occur again?”
SC: These are complex sets of solutions. How does an individual, let’s say, an attorney like yourself, working for the U.S. Institute of Peace, participate within these transitional situations, assess all of the complexities of any one country’s issues or any specific group of people’s situation, and help design the best kind of accountability or commissions to best address the conflicts?
NK: Well, the short answer is: with humility.
Important to the work is recognizing that it’s not the appropriate role for any outsider to impose or direct the answers for what, at its roots, is really a fundamental question for the society in question. Our role more typically is to give the stakeholders access to the information, the ideas and the options that exist.
Often times, they have not been exposed to the experience of other countries. When you talk about commissions, for example, perhaps they’ve heard something about South Africa. And in most cases, yes, there needs to be an amnesty arrangement for anyone who comes forward to confess to their prior crimes. But, in fact, South Africa was the anomaly, the outlier with respect to all other truth commissions. It’s the only one that’s had such an arrangement. Our role really is to provide people with access to that unique kind of information: not only to people at the governmental level but to ensure that civil society groups, various NGOs, victims groups and others have access to the information. Doing so helps to empower them to think through these issues, to debate these questions and to hopefully develop a response that makes sense for their society, in ways that will enable them to sort through the problem. We provide some input and guidance with respect to observations of what has worked or hasn’t worked elsewhere or what challenges they may face, but ultimately it’s a decision that needs to be made locally.
Important to the work is recognizing that it’s not the appropriate role for any outsider to impose or direct the answers for what, at its roots, is really a fundamental question for the society in question.
These activities tie in with the approach and the kind of broad work the USIP does: doing research and analysis and producing materials and tools so that people can be better informed. Also, grants are provided to groups around the world. For example, to civil society groups which enables them to undertake the work, research, and organizing on their own. Then there is the training that we do to ensure that various stakeholders are able to better understand how to manage all disputes, how to negotiate and mediate their way through various problems.
SC: That is a fine line to walk. In contentious situations often many of the people involved might still be dealing with their own emotions. The individuals of an organization that brings information must remain neutral.
NK: Those are skill sets we strive to exercise effectively.
This work is often a convening function. It’s a matter of bringing together people of various opinions and attitudes and exposing them to one another while sharing experiences from other countries. The people, then, learn from one another and broaden their horizons in terms of how they think about dealing with their own issues, claims and disputes. Our role is not prescriptive in terms of telling people what they need to do.
For something to really take root, one of the important lessons is to emphasize the importance of local ownership, particularly when it comes to the field of the rule of law. The mistake that’s often been made is the notion that one government can come in and simply impose institutions of reform when in fact local context and local culture already exists. Even if we were to draft a wonderful constitution that, in theory is perfect, there needs to be a process that enables the stakeholders in the local society to really engage their issues effectively.
To use the constitution making process as an example, in a post conflict environment, it is not just a technical exercise but a vehicle for all the competing factions in society to articulate their vision for a new society, to articulate their principles, and to debate with one another what the rules should be, how power should be distributed. That process takes what is otherwise simply the creation of a legal document and turns it into the very foundation for all the competing factions in society to come to the table and really understand one another, to come to terms and develop a consensus on how that society’s going to be organized and governed. Doing so changes the constitution into a much more powerful document. This also changes the timelines societies need to undertake and means you can’t simply gather a few people overnight in a closed room. Instead, they need to allow time for broader participatory processes and we’re able to provide those sorts of contributions to people.
A principle must be established: that there is no impunity, that a page has been turned in that country, and that it is important to find and hold people accountable for those abuses.
If you’re going to really enable stakeholders to take ownership of the new rules that are going to govern them, the reality is that takes longer than simply writing those rules onto paper. It can be messy. There is a financial cost involved to organizing public education campaigns, town hall discussions, and developing systems by which any member of the public can submit their recommendations or ideas or proposed amendments. But the payoff in many cases has been significant. We’d like to think we’ve helped facilitate this trend.
We are certainly seeing a trend worldwide with respect to constitution making for example, particularly in post conflict environments in which there is much more of an emphasis on empowering all the various factions in society, all citizens to really be able participate to some degree in the process of drafting that document.
SC: It would seem that more institutes of this caliber are necessary in the world to provide that calm and neutral voice, particularly when there are so many emerging conflicts worldwide.
NK: It would be a good thing.
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