Reconciling grievances between victims and perpetrators of crimes against humanity is difficult; without restitution and the making of amends it is impossible. Reconciliation between Indigenous peoples of the Americas and the dominant societies that sought to annihilate them requires both a change of heart on the part of the settlers, as well as a commitment to education in order to bring the holocaust to an end.
Fraught with danger, truth and reconciliation programs should not be entered into lightly. Sometimes it is questionable whether they should be conducted at all.
A few years back, when a corrupt board of trustees brought down my alma mater, they attempted to initiate a truth and reconciliation process in order to avoid accountability. The following is what I wrote about that.
Mediation only works between parties negotiating in good faith. When one party has consistently and consciously subverted communication and obstructed the pursuit of justice, mediation is an inappropriate tool.
When the misbehavior is abusive, indeed criminal, then prosecution is in order. In fact, diplomacy under these circumstances is entirely counterproductive.
One element essential to any truth and reconciliation process is the exposure of untruths, injustice, and irresponsible parties. Fairness demands accountability, including the removal from power of those who’ve violated social norms and human dignity.
Once the truth has come out in a full accounting derived from a complete investigation, and culprits have been judged by society as well as courts of law, then — and only then — is reconciliation an option to be considered.
In Steven Newcomb’s critique of a doctrine of reconciliation, he reviews the Christian domination paradigm, and the assimilation/reconciliation process. As a destructive legacy of church and state domination, says Newcomb, it is senseless to speak in terms of reconciliation with such illegitimate religious ideologies.
In Living with the Enemy, Susie Linfield discusses what Jean Amery called “the moral necessity of undying resentment”. Examining the modern obsession of truth and reconciliation, Linfield discovers the only truth is that “forgiveness and reconciliation are of far less interest to the victims than they are to the perpetrators”.
Truth commissions, be they in South Africa, Canada, or Guatemala, are fraught with difficulties, as emotional traumas and crimes against humanity are exposed and examined in public. Asymmetrical power — as both the root cause of atrocities and the source of distrust in reconciliation — is never more evident than when the most vulnerable accuse the least generous.
Given this tense situation, memories and testimonies are suspect, apologies and sincerity questionable. Media often seeks out the most bizarre, victims sometimes imagine unprovable horrors, the accused always try to control how much is exposed, the public largely resents the moral intrusion into their innocent psyches; it is not a pleasant process.
Yet, it is a necessary step toward resolution, and while it can present unforeseen dangers, it allows for better understanding that is required for social cohesion and cooperation on essential future initiatives. Distorting the past only ensures endless conflict.
While there is much to criticize about the Canadian truth commission process, they have at least begun. Maybe someday the people of the United States will get around to telling the truth about their history. When that happens, perhaps the two North American neighbors can resolve their objections to supporting human rights for Indigenous peoples worldwide.
As two of the three pariah states obstructing those rights at the UN, a change of heart by Canada and the US might help other states to walk the talk of equality, liberty and fraternity. We’ll never know until we try.
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