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Iraq: Is A Truth & Reconciliation Commission In Its Future? - 2003-04-14

History has shown that the fall of a dictator in no way guarantees freedom and stability in the years that follow. The legacy of war crimes and human rights abuses is often the shattered lives of many thousands of people. With the (apparent) fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people will face the numerous challenges of trying to build a democratic nation. One tool that’s been used by countries such as South Africa to build democracy is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Former members of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission saw those words put to the test with the end of apartheid. The chairman, Nobel laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, addressed the first gathering of the panel in December of 1995. He said, “We are a wounded people because of the conflict of the past, no matter on which side we stood. We all stand in need of healing.”

But establishing a truth and reconciliation commission is no simple matter.

Yasmin Sooka is a former TRC commissioner in South Africa, and currently sits on the truth and reconciliation commission in Sierra Leone.

She says, "I think firstly you must have some kind of peace agreement between warring parties or former opponents. I think that’s the first ingredient. Secondly, I think you must have some kind of transitional mechanism, which will ensure that the institutions of democracy are geared toward establishing a new democracy, which is based really on equality and justice for all."

She says during a transitional period, power sharing is a necessary ingredient.

South Africa’s TRC had the good fortune of being led by Archbishop Tutu, who was highly respected both at home and abroad. But is it necessary for such a commission in Iraq to have a chairman of such stature? Professor John Daniel of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council is a former TRC researcher.

He says, "A sort of morally charismatic, universally respected figure like Tutu is an enormous help, but it’s not absolutely essential. I mean there have been other successful commissions around the world – ones that are sitting now currently for example in Ghana and Peru – which don’t have a figure like that. But what they do have is they are staffed and headed and the policy is directed by individuals who are seen as untainted by associations with the previous regime. The regime that’s being investigated. And who are regarded as individuals of integrity."

Yasim Sooka says TRC members must also be chosen very carefully.

She says, "One of things you have to ensure is that they are regarded by all the different factions as being credible – and people who will in some way be independent of political allegiances or biases toward one or any other party."

But once a truth and reconciliation commission is sitting, how do you get the perpetrators of abuses to testify, to tell the truth? Human rights attorney Richard Lyster is also a former TRC commissioner in South Africa. He says you need a “carrot and stick” approach.

He says, "You may get the odd person who has a moral dilemma and feels that he must come forward in order to clear his own conscience to talk about what he did. But, basically, our experience with the military and the police is that they will sit there with their lips sealed – not say a thing – unless there is a credible threat that they may be prosecuted."

Besides perpetrators, TRCs also hear from victims. A major provision of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission was the promise of reparations. Mr. Lyster says it encouraged people to testify and helped in the healing process.

He says. "For example, in our commission we had all the proceedings fully broadcast on radio and TV. Testimonies of the victims touched hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. But that is not enough. At the end of the day people said, all right, we had our cathartic (healing) moment here on stage, but we want reparation. And I think people who had atrocities afflicted upon them expect and, in a sense, deserve some measure of reparation.”

Former TRC researcher John Daniel: "I mean I think it did operate as something of an incentive, particularly for very poor people. And that is not a bad idea because very often when you set up these institutions that governments create, etc, poor people and people from the under classes think that it’s not for them. But if you hold out the possibility of some form of compensation for the wrongs that they have suffered, then they are likely to come forward and make their own statements, as happened here."

Yasmin Sooka describes reparations as crucial. She says, "It also has the ability to, in fact, change and impact the way victims live because many of them lose breadwinners. No amount of money can make up for the loss. But in a way it is the restoration of the dignity. And so it is a crucial factor in the process."

All agree that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped start the healing process in South Africa, but warn it is far from complete. The final report of the TRC was recently presented to the government. Ms. Sooka says it is now up to government and civil society “to embark on this long road to finding common ground.” She says there remains a great deal of inequality on the social and economic level.

While there is much experience to draw upon in establishing a truth and reconciliation commission, the former TRC members say the final decision must be made by the Iraqi people. They say if a TRC is imposed on them, “there will be an extraordinary amount of resentment.”

Archbishop Tutu, in opening South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he hoped the panel would help heal the “hurts, alienations and hostilities of the past” – so the nation could concentrate on “a glorious future.”