Sierra Leoneans await the establishment of a Special Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission…. Nigeria pursues domestic trials as the Oputa "Truth Panel" ends its public hearings… Gacaca trials begin in Rwanda… the Congolese negotiations in South Africa put a truth and reconciliation commission on their agenda…. South Africans continue to debate the legacies of their own Truth and Reconciliation Commission… Zimbabwean activists working for a post-Mugabe dispensation consider possible ...read more
Sierra Leoneans await the establishment of a Special Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission…. Nigeria pursues domestic trials as the Oputa "Truth Panel" ends its public hearings… Gacaca trials begin in Rwanda… the Congolese negotiations in South Africa put a truth and reconciliation commission on their agenda…. South Africans continue to debate the legacies of their own Truth and Reconciliation Commission… Zimbabwean activists working for a post-Mugabe dispensation consider possible truth, justice and reconciliation options... a host of NGO and CBO-led initiatives at the community level gather momentum in a number of African countries…
Over the past decade, strategies for conflict resolution or democratic transition in Africa have increasingly addressed complex issues of truth, justice and reconciliation. It has become more difficult simply to ignore questions about accountability for serious human rights abuses and reparations and support for the victims. This is welcome, of course. But all apparent breakthroughs bring with them new dangers. In recent years we have become particularly concerned by two distinct but interrelated dangers.
First, there is the danger of off-the-peg solutions that do not take account specific historical and political-economic contexts. Second, there is the danger that those most directly affected -- the victims themselves -- are marginalised or manipulated by initiatives on truth, justice and reconciliation.
In what follows, we offer a brief explanation of our concerns. We then outline an idea for combatting these dangers. This is the creation of a service-providers' network of African NGO's, CBO's and individuals with experience of truth, justice and reconciliation issues. We need your feedback about this idea.
The danger of off-the-peg solutions
African governments and civil society activists who are committed to ending violent conflict or authoritarian rule often look for international assistance in addressing issues of truth, justice and reconciliation. In principle, there is no problem with this. After all, African governments and civil society often lack detailed information about how these issues have been tackled elsewhere. They may also feel that the expertise for such complex, ambitious undertakings is not available locally. Also, African governments and civil society do not generally have the funds to run institutions or processes of accountability and reparation without international assistance.
But this can leave African countries extremely vulnerable to outsiders -- for example, the United Nations, or the plethora of international NGO's now active in this area -- who try to shape these processes according to their own preconceptions. Control over information, expertise and money is a powerful combination. This dependence also leaves African governments and civil society vulnerable to being caught between the potentially conflicting priorities of outsiders - for example, between those who privilege judicial action and those who have a bias towards truth processes; or between the different approaches of lawyers and mental health workers.
In addition, our experience suggests that the outside actors do not always have the expertise that they claim. They often lack the capacity to monitor and evaluate comparative developments or to develop a coherent historical and political analysis of the country in which they have become engaged. Combined with the inevitable bureaucratic inertia, this means that such organisations tend to depend upon prior "policy packages", which they are often reluctant to change radically even if they are inappropriate. One such problematic area in this regard has been the import of inappropriate psycho-therapeutic based models of "trauma healing".
The danger that victims' voices are marginalised
Accountability, reparation and support for victims are, of course, officially at the heart of all truth, justice and reconciliation initiatives in African countries today. But often the victims themselves have not been consulted and have had little participation in the design and implementation of these initiatives. Participation and consultation often amounts to no more than ratifying decisions that have already been taken elsewhere. Consultation should mean a genuinely free debate about the various possible courses of action. Yet there is usually a reluctance to have such a dialogue over a prolonged period and involving all levels of society.
Those African NGO's and CBO's that do have expertise in independent or community-level initiatives on truth, justice and reconciliation are also not always adequately consulted and involved in those processes of design and implementation. This is why accountability institutions and processes often try to control or substitute for grassroots initiatives. This partly explains too why official institutions with a specific life-span such as trials or truth commissions are often ineffective as catalysts for the longer-term follow-up at all levels of society that is needed in African countries emerging from violent conflict or authoritarian rule.
A service-providers' network?
So might an African service-providers' network play a useful role in addressing the twin dangers of "off-the-peg solutions" and the marginalisation of victims' voices? Could such a network be the basis for mutual advocacy and solidarity around issues of "good practice"? African NGO's are already linking up on this issue. For example, the Sierra Leone Working Group on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is a coalition of Sierra Leonean NGO's and CBO's established to strengthen Sierra Leonean input into truth and reconciliation processes in that country. In 2001, it sent a delegation to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa and the Amani Trust in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, to learn about their community-based truth, justice and reconciliation work. But so far such exchanges have often been on an ad hoc basis. Progress towards more systematic networking appears to have been made in southern Africa, however, where the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation is coordinating a sub-regionwide research project in partnership with a range of NGO's in the other countries of the sub-region.
There is no reason why such a network could not also draw upon the comparative experience of NGO's and CBO's in other regions. For example, the Amani Trust in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, has worked with local communities in Matabeleland to exhume victims of human rights abuses there during the Gukurahundi in the mid-1980s and facilitate their dignified reburial. In doing so, it has worked closely with the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team, which is also due to be involved in Sierra Leone over the coming years, and developed relationships with human rights organisations in other Latin American countries working in this area.
We are acutely aware that networks can be difficult to sustain and often promise much more than they deliver. Given that this is the case, it might make sense to proceed slowly and to identify one or two areas for concrete cooperation over an initial period of two years. It might be inappropriate for such a network to take any formal institutional shape itself during that initial period. The hub of such a network could be a core group of no more than five African NGO's or CBO's, with one of them taking on initial responsibility for coordination.
But the "first principle "question is whether a service-providers' network of this kind would be desirable. The time, quite simply, may still not be right. Only if its desirability is established do questions of feasibility arise. We remain genuinely undecided. Whether you are involved actively in truth, justice and reconciliation issues in your home country or are simply an interested reader, please do let us know your opinion by replying to us via Pambazuka News.
[The authors are human rights activists who have been involved with a range of truth, justice and reconciliation initiatives in southern and West Africa. They are writing in their personal capacities]