Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Truth About Reconciliation Commissions

Talk of reconciliation between the warring parties in Iraq is much in the air these days and it already has had the salutatory effect pushing several of groups toward the negotiating table.

Don't get me wrong, expectatations are low that talks will actually take place before the next round of bloodletting, which too frequently occurs in and around mosques during Friday prayers. There also isn't a whole lot of optimism thatPrime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's reconciliation plan will go forward, but it's encouraging that it even has been proposed.

The plan is an effort to find a political solution to the violence that takes the lives of dozens of Iraqis each day, most of them at the hands of Sunni and Shiite militias who are doing a pretty fair imitation of being engaged in a civil war that the young national government has been helpless to stop. (The New York Times has a terrific interactive map of ethnic and sectarian divisions here.)

Al-Maliki's plan necessarily includes a provision for granting armed thugs amnesty, which has raised fears that it would be an invitation to attack U.S. troops and there would be an increase in such attacks.

On Tuesday, the prime minister sought to assure the U.S. that such attacks would not be covered under an amnesty. We'll see.

Any reconciliation plan should necessarily include establishment of a so-called truth and reconciliation commission, but whether that can happen in a country that has experienced decades of dictatorship followed by unrest and now arguably civil war, seems far in the future.
Such commissions are tasked with revealing past wrongdoing by a government in the hope of resolving past conflicts. They typically are established by states emerging from periods of great instability.
The historic record of such commissions is decidedly mixed.

They have been marginally successful in Argentina, East Timor, Fiji, Liberia, Morocco, Panama and Peru, among other places. They have been more successful in Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 1995 by Nelson Mandela after apartheid ended is considered the model.

The TRC was a court-like body. Anyone who felt they had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard, while perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.
No one was exempt from being charged. This included ordinary citizens, police officers and members of Mandela’s own African National Congress, the ruling party at the time the TRC operated.

The commission heard testimony from many witnesses about secret and immoral acts committed by the apartheid government, ANC and other liberation forces that would not have come out into the open otherwise.

In the end, 5,392 people were refused amnesty and 849 were granted amnesty.

In1998, the commission presented its final report, which condemned both sides for committing atrocities.

The TRC was a crucial component of the transition to full democracy in South Africa and was by highly successful by nearly all measures.
For more on the commission, go here.

There has been one truth and reconciliation commission in modern U.S. history. This independent, democratically selected body was formed in Greensboro, North Carolina, following the so-called Greensboro Massacre on November 3, 1979, in which a number of people demonstrating for racial and economic justice were killed and wounded after being fired upon.

For more on this commission, go here.

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