AFRICANGLOBE – The demand that states confront their past isn’t new. In the aftermath of World War II, successor regimes across Europe held trials of Nazi collaborators. Truth commissions followed a wave of democratic transitions in El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia and beyond.
In 1984, Argentina’s truth commission published its report and a handful of military officers were put on trial. Each of these initiatives was inspirational, but also necessarily compromised. It was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that created a new global standard that served as a symbol that post-conflict reconciliation could be the basis for a fundamental restructuring of society. In 1998, the commission handed its report to President Nelson Mandela, who died in December.
Internationally, the symbolic power of truth and justice has been surprisingly robust. Many people uncritically embrace the aspiration to uncover and document the truth, and the belief that doing so will generate societal reconciliation. But confronting the past is ineluctably political, and especially in the absence of a solid democratic foundation, ill-considered efforts to deal with the past may do more harm than good and generate heightened expectations for redress.
The assumption that truth or justice can provide a neutral basis for widespread societal reconciliation in the recent aftermath of conflict is at best naïve. South Africa allowed individual perpetrators the opportunity to apply for amnesty if they confessed their crimes at public hearings not because this was an ideal strategy, but because a political bargain between the African National Congress and the apartheid regime that made the transition to majority rule possible demanded it.
In Rwanda, Kagame’s government quickly abandoned efforts at full-fledged human rights trials, and instead drew on more than 10 years of gacaca trials to create a historical record of the genocide that excluded any account of Tutsi crimes. Its victory over the Hutu government made this one-sided strategy possible, and this strategy in turn has been used by Kagame to consolidate his rule.
In Mozambique, political negotiations made possible by a stalemate led to a 1992 peace settlement and two decades of peace (though the accord was recently abandoned). Peace in this case was made possible by integrating Renamo rebels into politics as the major opposition party and providing a blanket amnesty for both sides.
Compromise designed to oil the wheels of political transition has often failed to satisfy demands for reckoning with the past. But combined with moderated aspiration, it can prove a prudent first step. The rapid release of Chile’s truth commission report gave human rights advocates inspiration, but amnesty and caution created the space for democratic rebuilding. Nearly a decade later, Pinochet’s arrest gave those keen to deal with the past momentum in a context of a consolidated democracy.
Across Africa today, states emerging from conflict and authoritarianism face enormous pressure to deal with their past quickly, and to do so in line with increasingly robust international legal standards. Their latitude for deliberation, choice and compromise has shrunk.
Strategies for dealing with the past are not only political by design, they also have significant distributional effects, delivering justice, truth or reconciliation for some and denying it from others. South Africa’s commission was inevitably compromised, the vast majority of political crimes remain unreported, and the majority black population has so far failed to reap the economic benefits of transition. What the commission did manage, though, was to inject a moral resource for talking about the past while preserving the political transition.
This careful balance may be harder to achieve today but finding a prudent balance between inspiration and compromise when confronting the recent past will provide the greatest long term prospect for democratic values and human rights to thrive.
By: Leslie Vinjamuri