The transition from military regimes to democratic governments in Latin America and Africa since the 70s and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the end of apartheid in South Africa has heralded an era of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Beginning from Argentina in 1981 to the much trumpeted one South African in 1995 these commissions have been created in more than 30 countries during the past two to three decades.
Since then, the reconciliation industry has flourished and flights of experts have flown from Latin Americas to Africa. Pakistan will probably be the next destination, in the wake of the new democratic set up being formed; and which is purportedly yearning for the truth about past atrocities.
It is becoming increasingly common for countries emerging from civil war or authoritarian rule to establish truth commissions to operate during the immediate post-transition or democratic led period. These commissions¡Xofficially sanctioned for a specific task and time period are non-judicial investigative bodies¡Xemploy the methods of statement taking, investigations and public hearings until the submission of the final report. While truth commissions do not replace the need for prosecutions, they do offer some form of accountability for past atrocities as was illustrated in the much quoted South African example.
Even the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a compromise¡Xrejection of total amnesty and no retribution in exchange for volunteer mechanisms. But no total impunity as being adopted presently by the PPP led government in Pakistan under the guise of reconciliation and national interests. Despite society¡¦s unwillingness to forgive and forget; and refusal to move on without confronting the repression of its precursor generation, these Commissions are the advised path of shortsighted politicians and their cronies.
It is equally important to note that in countries where prosecutions for massive crimes are impossible or unlikely either due to a lack of capacity of the judicial system or a de facto / de jure amnesty this might be the only option. For instance this is what happened in South America and more recently in Afghanistan where warlords were pardoned.
But in Pakistan¡Xthough its judicial system is far from ideal and is still suffering from post November 2007 aftershocks and jitters¡Xnonetheless, it cannot be in any reasonable way equated to Afghanistan or Africa¡Xwhere governments were unwilling or unable to prosecute perpetrators of crimes because of utterly dysfunctional official criminal justice systems.
Generally the thrust for the formation of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is that past human rights violations and crimes cannot be ignored during the democratic transition. In the present Pakistani context, it is the right for individuals to know the truth about the fate of disappeared persons during the past decade of military rule; or information about other past abuses committed in the name of the so-called war against terror.
These methods provided convenient tools for the governments in power to crush and persecute political opponents who dared to demand their enshrined fundamental rights and political autonomy.
Not only were such convenient tools put to their best use by states who were in the bandwagon of the West or more appropriately, the US, but also by those who were ideological divergent, such as Russia in Chechnya or China in its western provinces.
While some countries from Argentina to South Africa have constructed truth commissions around the notion of advancing reconciliation or have seen such entities as a tool that will achieve a similar objective; but is not assumed to directly result in reconciliation in the national or political sphere.
It is also worth noting from the experiences of past truth commissions during the past decade that reconciliation is understood differently in different contexts. Reconciliation is a very long and slow process and care should be taken not to put undue and unfair pressure on the victims to forgive or quickly feel reconciled once they know the truth or receive the official acknowledgement of the past atrocities. The politics of apologies for past atrocities in Pakistan is almost a replica of what the Japanese government offered for excesses against comfort women sans any sort of reparations or what the Australian government offered the ¡¥lost generations¡¦ of stolen children of the Aboriginal people.
In Pakistan this attractive entity is used as a tool to achieve political power with the rhetoric of national reconciliation. Reconciliation for whom? Naturally reconciliation is for the victims and survivors of past abuses . A truth commission is not appropriate for every country or every transition; and even if it is formed, it should be as a result of a national choice based on a consultative process particularly accommodating the views of the victims and the survivors.
The core principles and operating assumptions of truth commissions demand that apart from national choice there should be political will and operational independence. The government should not only be willing to provide active support in funding and cooperation from civil servants but provide open access to state archives for records pertinent to its investigation, including restricted documents.
However, will Pakistanis officials including military personnel with knowledge of crimes provide information to the commission in public hearings or in private meetings? Does the present government have the backbone for the process of lustration? That which requires the purging and cleansing of all concerned officials whether from civil bureaucracy or members of the judiciary who were in collusion with the military junta¡Xnot dissimilar to the de-Nazification in Germany.
Other key concepts like amnesty-bargaining¡Xnot for power but for purposes of naming and shaming and that knowledge may lead to truth¡Xare distant dreams in Pakistan, when the swords of Official Secrets Acts and open-ended, vaguely defined national interests hang on. Fancy words like transitional or restorative justice used as alternatives prosecutions or established criminal model means little in states that boast nuclear capability but cannot afford the alleged luxury of criminal trials.
TRCs may be a model for other countries but not in Pakistan¡¦s context. This is because tension between truth and justice, the future conflict and post conflict, knowledge as opposed to retribution and victims vs. perpetrators and societal restoration, will remain, TRCs sacrifice the pursuit of justice as usually understood, for the sake of promoting reconciliation, social purpose and historical truth. The pursuit of justice does not pre supposes a retributive view of punishment but it aims at bringing individuals to trials who are credibly alleged to have committed crimes and are seeking a legal verdict and an appropriate punishment if they are found guilty.
The culture of impunity, amnesty and indemnity which is the hallmark of accountability will be further be legitimized by such commissions. In democratic society and especially in a country that is trying to overcome injustices of the past trading criminal justice for a general social benefit such as reconciliation requires a moral defence for its acceptability. Alas a democratic dispensation without any functioning opposition.
Posted on 2009-08-06