The Politics of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

How can societies achieve political reconciliation in the wake of repression, civil conflict and human rights violations? In the final event of the Conflict, Security and Development Series (March 6, 2012), Dr. Vilma “Nina” Balmaceda, Director of the Center for Scholarship and Global Engagement at Nyack College, took up this question. Her talk thoughtfully connected theory with experience, drawing important lessons about the power and the challenges of historical truth-telling.

After periods of intense political violence under repressive regimes in Argentina(1976-1983), Chile(1973-1990) and Uruguay(1973-1985), and during the Shining Path conflict in Peru(1980-2000), each nation began a path toward political reconciliation. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized three main components of this process: building a shared history, seeking truth and justice, and establishing reparations programs. All three present major challenges.

First of all, the story of a conflict often depends on who tells it. In Argentina, Peruand Uruguay, for instance, political leanings continue to predict whether people attribute human rights abuses to a pattern of systematic repression by a powerful regime or to individuals overstepping their bounds. While a truth commission report offers an in-depth explanation of what happened, this does not necessarily generate a shared history either. The findings are available online, but they are not included in school curricula, and many people are unfamiliar with the reports.

Lack of evidence presents another challenge. Victims often “disappeared” without a trace, and witnesses were terrorized. Later, when suspects are brought to trial, a rigorous burden of proof can mean perpetrators go free; a less rigorous standard can mean trials are seen as politically motivated. Due to their differential political power, low-level soldiers often face prosecution while leaders do not.

While no amount of money can make up for the atrocities that occurred, reparations can make a difference in the lives of victims’ families. Here, too, the story is important. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized that reparations should be given with the message that they are a right of those who suffered abuse and injustice, not a result of the generosity of current political leaders.

After extensive research in Argentina, Chile, PeruandUruguay, Dr. Balmaceda concluded that none of these countries has yet achieved political reconciliation. What could help advance the process? She suggests incorporating truth commission findings into public school curricula. Currently, students learn about the military victories of centuries past, but recent repression and peace-building efforts rarely make the history books. In addition, media should publicize not just incidents of violence but also communities’ efforts to remember and to heal. Telling these stories could help decrease polarization and create a shared narrative.

As Dr. Balmaceda remarked, across political lines and individual differences, the dignity and rights of human beings should be the easiest thing to agree on. Still, it seems we have a long way to go.

The Conflict, Security and Development Series at NYU Wagner will pick up these themes again next fall.

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