Dealing with Past Human Rights Abuses and Atrocities: a Recipe for Humanity

Here is a post I did on the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Olive Branch Blog:

April 2012 | Olive Branch Post by Colette Rausch

Colette RauschApril 30, 2012

Upon learning of the Charles Taylor conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Tribunal, I had many mixed feelings and emotions.

On one hand, the verdict is victory for holding leaders accountable for atrocities that they orchestrate. In Taylor’s case, the former president of Liberia had supported rebels who embarked on a violent and brutal struggle to overthrow the government in neighboring Sierra Leone. The rebels engaged in horrific crimes, including murder rape and slavery, as well as the kidnapping and conscription of children — forced to engage in violent warfare and unspeakable atrocities, aided through Taylor.

On the other hand, while the verdict and its impact on the present and future conduct of similarly inclined despots should certainly be celebrated — there remains a daunting list of open wounds and troubling issues that have yet to be addressed by the world community.

This includes holding accountable all the others involved in the atrocities, addressing the still lingering trauma, physical and emotional injuries and financial losses of Taylor’s victims in Sierra Leone. And while the Special Tribunal’s verdict addresses his involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict, it leaves those for which he was involved in his own country of Liberia unsettled.

Transitional Justice

So my mixed feelings open up the promise of what we call “transitional justice” or “TJ.”

Very generally speaking, TJ is a process by which a country deals with past abuses during a conflict or under an authoritarian regime. TJ’s goals are many: establish truth about what happened and why, acknowledge victims’ suffering, hold perpetrators accountable, compensate for past wrongs, prevent future abuses and promote social healing and reconciliation.

There have been a variety of mechanism and techniques used in numerous post-conflict and post-authoritarian countries to try and accomplish these ambitious and challenging goals, including criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations and compensation programs, vetting systems to remove abusive officials from public offices, reforming offending institutions (such as the military and police), building monuments and psycho-social programs to address traumatized individuals and societies.

Just last week I was at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS), at the U.S. Naval Station in Newport, Rhode Island, teaching as a guest instructor at their Laws of Armed Conflict and Human Rights course.

As I prepared my discussion on the laws of armed conflict for the military officers from around the globe, including officer’s from Afghanistan, Armenia, Colombia, Mozambique, Yemen and Albania who were the course’s participants, I found myself pouring over my Powerpoints and presentations, trying to organize them in a logical, technical and meaningful way.

And as I did so, I couldn’t help but be stricken by the feeling I was a baker assembling a recipe for a cake. “Add a pinch of this. A sprinkle of that and go through all these steps and then “poof” everything will be fine.”

But I know better than that.

One of the privileges and drawbacks and hardships of my position is that I travel to these same war-torn countries and meet and speak with the victims of these unspeakable atrocities. As I add their lessons to my Powerpoint, each of their faces and the pain and loss they express flashes through my mind— sometimes an unwelcome visual aid to the gravity and import of the lessons I will attempt to impart on the course’s participants.

At the conclusion of my presentation, we watched the powerful and gripping documentary that USIP produced in association with York Zimmerman Inc., called “Confronting the Truth: Truth Commission and Societies in Transition.”

Without exception, with every airing, at the documentary’s ending, silence fills the room for minutes on end.

The heaviness of what we have just watched, from the victim’s stories of horrific atrocities involving rape, torture, and brutality beyond comprehension, coupled with the realization that, even when equipped with all the powerful and proven transitional justice tools we cover in my lecture, not one is a panacea for bringing peace and justice to the victims or is capable of healing an entire country by itself.

So as I come back to the Charles Taylor verdict— a shining example of a transitional justice success story — perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn from his trial and the experiences of his victims is that there are certain ghastly and horrific things humankind does to humankind that no matter how well intentioned or how hard we try, human kind simply cannot undo.


Building Community

Wisdom comes at unexpected times. I stopped by my community garden plot today to give the plants a drink of water in advance of the heat advisory level temperatures pushing into the 90’s. My plot borders the community garden front fence.  A sidewalk lines the other side of the fence and whenever I am working in my plot, I see and greet people who periodically pass by. Sometimes I am asked what is going on in the area and how someone else could get a similar plot. Sometimes I am engaged in conversation and offered gardening advice, as I was two weeks back when a kind gentleman warned me that my plants were inaccessible and I needed more walkway space in between my rows of plants. (Ever since then, as I work from the walkway spaces to weed and pull suckers from my tomatoes, I smile and mentally thank him, as he was right.)  So today a gentleman stopped and asked me the routine questions about what is going on and how does one get a plot.  Then he asked if he could come in. I let him in and, as he surveyed my plot and the other plots, I could tell he did not approve.

He told me that he was from Sierra Leone.  (Sierra Leone is a country that continues to rebuild after being ravaged by war. A few years ago, I landed by plane in Sierra Leone on my way to Liberia but we only stopped to let off passengers and then went on our way.) He told me that he had horticulture experience and that what we needed to do was to get together as a community and agree upon a certain crop that we would all grow.  Then we should rotate our crops each year and plant something else.  He described how rotating crops helps to prevent infestation and disease.  Otherwise, he said, we would be encouraging bacteria and bugs to get cozy in our garden year after year and eat our crops.

You know, he said, the problem with people here, is that they do their own thing, focus on their own ideas.  They separate out and stay to themselves. They don’t know their neighbors and don’t work together as a community. Translating this to the garden, he said that by doing their own thing in a community garden, people fail to successfully yield the level of crops they want. Worse, they end up destroying the land and the future crops.  But if they collaborated and worked together toward a common purpose, they would all succeed together and harvest much more.

I was struck by the simplicity of his words.  Moreover, I was struck by the wisdom of what he was saying in that I thought about how we promote “rule of law” abroad yet each organization or country comes in with their own ideas on how it should be done.  Each works independently and separately from the other organizations and countries. Then we wonder why progress is not made.  Or worse, why things in some cases deteriorate on the justice and security front.

As I was working through these parallels in my mind, he went on.  You know, he said, I used to go out to the countryside of my country to help the people grow more crops and share with them ideas on how they could do that. He explained how he was from the city and educated and how he knew that due to the conditions in villages, if he ate the food, he would get ill.  But he said that he could not go into a village and refuse the food because that would be an insult and he would not succeed in building the trust needed to help increase their ability to grow more food. So he said he used diplomacy.  If the food had salt, he would say that his doctor  would not let him eat salt for his health. Then he would have a good reason not to eat the food and all would be well.  He said it is important to use diplomacy to make a difference and not cause barriers to getting development work done.

We exchanged a few more words and then he left.

I stood there for a few minutes and smiled and mused about how lucky I am to have the community garden that is not only growing vegetables, but is also growing community. It has been so rewarding to share tips, ideas and time with my fellow plotters. I’m thankful that it has created the doorway to such unexpected encounters with passersby, not only enriching  my gardening but my work in peacebuilding as well.