Mon, 17 Apr 2000

Long, winding road to reconciliation

One hurdle to the truth and reconciliation commission to be formed, would be the political interest to search either a whitewash or a witch-hunt, writes political analyst Kusnanto Anggoro, a senior researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and a lecturer at the postgraduate program of the University of Indonesia, Jakarta.

JAKARTA (JP): A banner was hanging at the venue of a recent two-day seminar which read "Solutions to human rights abuses: Between truth and justice".

In the new millennium, in this age of reckoning, such words encapsulate one of the principal paths Indonesians have to tread in order to deal with their dark past, hopefully for a better future.

Truth and justice are two of four concepts that peace educator John Paul Lederach has identified as being important to reconciliation -- the other two are mercy and peace.

Indeed, truth and justice are the two most powerful motives behind reconciliation. It could well be more so for Indonesia, whose very foundation of statehood and nationhood has gone into disarray.

Many people are now trapped in conflicts with one another that, directly or otherwise, could be the consequence of conflicts among the elite.

Others have been living with the sheer drama of the past during the legally sanctioned military regime of Soeharto's New Order, during which time almost every aspect of life was governed with an iron fist. It is imperative in seeking the truth to give as complete a record of human rights violations as is humanly possible.

Uncovering the truth is a struggle for justice -- a luxury of the past and promise of the future.

For decades, perpetrators have benefited from corruption, enjoyed power and privilege, while victims have suffered the trauma of arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, and many other rights abuses.

Truth has to give voice to the experiences of victims and survivors, witnesses and perpetrators.

Justice must deal with the question of pardon or punishment -- something which is extremely difficult in a transitional regime.

More often than not, an important distinction has been made between information (the facts of the case) and acknowledgement (the bearing of responsibility).

Nonetheless, the relationship between truth and justice is one of the keenest paradoxes of the process of reconciliation.

There cannot be genuine reconciliation without forgiveness and mercy, which, unfortunately, cannot be granted without knowledge.

It is problematic. Knowledge is impossible without inquiry, which of course requires justice for the victims and survivors as well as the perpetrators.

Victims and survivors cannot forget what has happened to them and cannot get on with building the future until their calls for justice have been answered. The guilty would like to see mercy shown to them in the form of general amnesty.

The creation of a truth and reconciliation commission is now being highly discussed, picking up steam behind the already established commission of inquiries. It is widely assumed that justice is a precondition for reconciliation.

Yet, such a commission could well be an institution capable of creating a split in the national psyche; perpetrators and victims, euphoria and grief, victory and defeat.

The success of a truth commission depends on Lederach's concepts of truth, justice, mercy and peace. People's assessments of the success of the commission depends very much on their emphasis on one or more of the four concepts to the exclusion of the others. For the family of victims, for example, the commission's work would be measured against the yardstick of justice and thus found wanting.

The government of Abdurrahman Wahid has the legitimacy to establish the commission, as did the post-Pinochet Chile President Patricio Aylwin, the post-military dictatorship of Argentina's Raul Alfonsin, and post-Apartheid South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

Abdurrahman may be in a better position than the volte-face regime of Sierra Leone and Guatemala. He has the standing of a democrat and humanist comparable to South Korea's Kim Dae Jung.

At the end of the day, however, a legal foundation is needed. In South Africa's case, this comes from an interim constitution (1993) and, thereafter, the Promotion of the National Unity Act (1995). This would provide the commission with required legitimacy, and, thus, authority to do it job.

The commission would encounter serious challenges. It cannot possibly try every violation of the past. It will be overburdened. Financial and human resources are not easily available.

More importantly, politics would perhaps force it to adopt the principle of transitional justice, striking the balance between a whitewash on the one hand, and a witch-hunt on the other.

Not even the widely modeled South African truth and reconciliation commission has been able to escape from this constraint. Only if appropriately structured can the commission achieve its objectives of encouraging and fostering reconciliation, while accommodating the needs for mercy and peace.

The way ahead may be arduous. The idea of creating the commission deserves full support. In fact, as was the case in Guatemala, civil society could take the lead. Of course, its role must be debated, discussed and disseminated.