The case for truth, reconciliation commission in Zim

via The case for truth, reconciliation commission in Zim – Southern Eye 1 August 2015

Those upon the margins of transitional justice’s disciplinary boundaries are beginning to understand the need for an alternative approach in reconciling troubled and divided nations (Stanley, 2001, 2005; Hayner, 1998; Scharf, 1997; Laplante, 2008). This realisation is invariably prompted by society’s failure to divorce with the past, particularly in countries where there have been human rights violations such as in Zimbabwe.

In the early 1980s, just as when many African nations were congratulating Zimbabweans for successfully executing the struggle for independence, the same revolutionary structure that had championed the liberation war began to come apart. The Patriotic Front comprising the Zimbabwe African People Union (led by Joshua Nkomo) and Zimbabwe African National Union (led by Robert Mugabe) – that had for two decades confronted the minority Rhodesian1 government of Ian Douglas Smith started squabbling amongst themselves, leading up to unprecedented cases of human rights abuses (Nkomo, 1984).

Human rights concerns in Zimbabwe have been well- articulated, not only by local and international media, but also by Non-Governmental Organisations such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJ), and the Legal Resources Foundation of Zimbabwe (LRFZ). Perhaps, the CCJ and LRFZ, (1999) correctly captures what went wrong in post-colonial Zimbabwe.

People have been tortured, seen their dead ones murdered or abducted, had their houses burnt. No efforts have been made to alleviate their plight and those who caused the damage have not been made answerable (CCJ and LRF, 1999, p30).

The conflict that ensued was fought seemingly without respect for Human Rights (Human Rights Watch, 2007). What happened were clear cases of violation of civil and political rights alongside social, economic and cultural rights. The Ndebele people of Zulu origin who supported the election losing candidate Joshua Nkomo suffered both physical and economic exploitation, with thousands of them skipping the country to neighbouring South Africa. More than 3.6 million Zimbabweans are estimated to have disserted their country, most of them living as economic and political refugees in South Africa, Britain, Australia, New Zealand (Human Rights Watch, 2007). Conventional wisdom dictates that there is something grossly imperfect with a political system that forces its citizens away from their country of birth.

With this in mind, the study advances an argument that the legacy of the 1980 disturbances may never go away unless an effective transitional mechanism that seeks to address a post-conflict ideological baggage is instituted. Although Critical thinkers such as Gibson (2004) and Hayner (1998) have not directly examined the Zimbabwean case, they contextually conceive the view that Zimbabwe desperately needs a forward-looking political strategy to prevent further socio-political fragmentation resulting from abuses of rights. The conception is that Zimbabwe’s Human Rights record remains a “scar” that may impede processes of peace and stability if it is left unhealed.

A TRC can enable Zimbabwe to directly and thoroughly confront its atrocious past, as a means of shaping the future (Gibson, 2004). This could be a pragmatic approach in trying to construct a shared memory which is critical for the creation of a more reconciled society.
The focus is primarily on the new understanding of justice promulgated by truth commissions using the formula: Truth + Redress = Reconciliation. The aim is to put forward an alternative and effective framework for uniting Zimbabweans. A political discourse highlighting that recognising the truth about violations is imperative for the argument advanced in this study. The discourse also argues that instituting some redress policies may enable Zimbabweans to come into terms with their past, ultimately, reconcile. That way, Zimbabweans can at least begin to travel together on the road towards reconciliation and social cohesion.

What is a Truth Commission?

Truth Commissions are transitional justice mechanisms usually established during a transition to democracy to deal with human rights violations (Stanley, 2005; Hoffman, 2003). Transitional justice scholars, for example Minow (1998) have sought to define Truth Commissions in terms of philosophical standards of justice, while Allan and Allan (2000) define a truth commission as one of the institutions used in international law to investigate gross human rights violations within a specific country.
For Du Toit (2011), truth commissions are tools of transformative social action, which rests on the assumption that collective remembrance of the past will help prevent the recurrence of violence in the future. Du Toit (2011)’s views maybe critical for this analysis in terms of postcolonial abuses in Zimbabwe. Establishing a transformative mechanism may serve as a pragmatic approach in trying to address the legacy of post-colonial Zimbabwe injustices. Critical to this view is that social change in the wake of a culture of human rights abuses may require a shrewd transitional mechanism that is able to prevent the country from sliding into a civil war, hence it is posited that a TC can provide the required smooth transition of power. This is largely because victims who suffered grievously in the past may see an opportunity to engage in an orgy of revenge and retribution.

Characteristic of an effective Truth Commission

Efforts of establishing an effective truth commission should be guided by aspirations of the affected society (Scharf, 1997; Hayner, 1994, 2001, 2002). Critical to the premise of a TC are victims, survivors, bystanders and perpetrators as well. Consequently, TCs should seek to encompass many other causes of conflict with the hope of securing a peaceful post-conflict settlement (Hayner, 1998; Scharf, 1997).

For Freeman (2006), an effective TC should have five characteristics: be able to perform statement-taking, use subpoena powers, use powers of search and seizure, conduct public hearings, and be able to publish its findings in a final report.

Furthermore, TCs should provide assurances of non- repetition of repression or violence. For example, TCs can also been used against covert, state-sponsored crimes to reveal clandestine violence, establish the accountability of political and military leaders, and to publicly acknowledge the previously silenced stories of victims (Shaw, 2005). Public recounting of memories and testimonies about violence is also paramount. This may serve as a redemptive process of reconciliation and redress of injustice. The question of redress is imperative for post-Mugabe justice, for instance, one of the most divisive issues in Zimbabwe is the deployment of the Fifth Brigade (Gukurahundi) in Matabeleland and Midlands areas between 1982 and 1984 (Nkomo, 1984). The footprints of the Fifth Brigade are still vivid in Zimbabwe’s socially-shared memory, and, perhaps more significantly, some perpetrators as well as the survivors can still be reached. The most productive approach maybe to redress victims and survivors as a means of paving way for reconciliation and unity.

This section examines the origins of truth commissions (TC) and explores how truth commissions have become increasingly popular transitional mechanisms in countries attempting to confront their past.

The aim of this discussion is to demonstrate that the suggestion for a Zimbabwe TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) is a reflection of a wider world that is fast resorting to TCs; hence the idea is not a new one. It has been evolving for a long time. The main driver has been the search for social justice.

Citizens living under dictatorship that may have not only persecuted them, but also ravaged the economy are perhaps beginning to under-stand that poverty is both a cause and consequence of human rights abuse and lack of social protection (Fukuda-Parr, 2007).

They now understand that extreme poverty which often is a consequence of controversial economic and political policies manifest as a violation of human rights, hence someone is morally responsible for their impoverishment (Pogge, 2003). Consequently, victims of violations must continue demanding redress for structural harms (Shaw, 2005).

This new thinking, together with the desire for redress may have led to the formation of the first TC in 1974 in Uganda under Idi Amin (Quinn, 2001).

For Scharf (1997), the first truth commission, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was set up in 1919 after World War I by allies to investigate alleged atrocities committed against civilians and prisoners of war during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. However, it is observed that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was not a national TC, but an international one. There is also a view that the first TC was the Bangladesh War Inquiry Commission appointed by the Pakistan president in December 1971 to investigate the killings of thousands of Bangladeshis (Government of Pakistan, 1974). The commission published its final report in 1974.

Nonetheless, much contemporary literature on transitional justice argues that the first conventional truth be paid to families of the killed and disappeared to redress the past (Bonner and James, 2011). In 1992 the Chadian Commission of Inquiry explored socioeconomic deprivations, including how ordinary people were made homeless and destitute, and further explored the plight of orphans living on the streets (Hayner, 1998).

In 2003, the Peru TRC implicated socioeconomic injustice as a cause of conflict. In 2004, the Sierra Leone TRC concluded that there was a link between conflict and socioeconomic inequalities (Peru TRC, 2003). These examples demonstrate a trend in terms of shift towards redress and social justice.

Campbell (2000) observes that the concept of seeking justice emerged at the end of World War II with both the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals.
She argues that these tribunals have become the standard by which all transitional mechanisms are measured. This view is relevant in the debate about appropriate transitional mechanism for Zimbabwe.

This serves to contextualise the proposed Zimbabwe TRC with other historic transitional mechanisms, suggesting that the proposed TRC is not unique, but a developed duplication of other transitional justice experiments that have emerged since the end of the Second World War.

The proposed Zimbabwe TRC can seek to address some various problems and obstacles encountered by many of the previous commissions, particularly those in Latin America (Campbell, 2000). This may mean that the proposed Zimbabwe TRC can improve over other experiments due to the nature of injustices and violations.

For example, the principle of crimes against humanity and systematic crimes against civilians set down by the Nuremberg Tribunals of 1945, which may apply to the Gukurahundi atrocities should be reflected in the mandate of the proposed Zimbabwe TRC but in a restorative format to help establish a human rights culture in Zimbabwe.

A country which observes human rights may have lesser cases of crimes against humanity. As a result of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, 11 Nazis were sentenced to death and seven imprisoned at Spandau (Kaufman, 2010). In Tokyo, a military tribunal delivered retribution upon several prominent Japanese people. Two former Japanese premiers, Baron Koki Hirota and General Hideki Tojo, were hanged, as were five other Japanese generals (Kaufman, 2010).

While in South Africa there is no record of death sentences resulting from apartheid crimes, a former apartheid police colonel in the counter-insurgency unit Eugene Alexander de Kock was denied amnesty after he was found by the TRC to have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered hundreds of anti-apartheid activists (Mahlangu and Pather, 2012). De Kock confessed his unit’s crimes while testifying before the TRC and was in 1996 consequently tried and convicted on eighty-nine charges resulting in him being sentenced to 212 years in prison (Mahlangu and Pather, ibid). However, the South African TRC’s main objective was not focused on retribution but on building a future free from it.

In the post-World War 2 period, a number of transitional mechanisms were introduced. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights2 (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at Palais de Chaillot, Paris, was part of a concerted effort to find alternative and better ways of confronting past crimes. UDHR arose directly from the experience of the Second World War and represented the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.

This section has explored the history of transitional mechanisms, how tribunals relate to TCs, in particular has discussed ways how the proposed Zimbabwe TC can learn lessons from these to make its own improvements.

The section demonstrated the concept of TCs marks a departure from relying on prosecutions alone as a means of transforming an emerging democracy. A shift of trend was outlined and a range of TCs and their history in the context of the social justice perspective was examined. To be continued

● Dr Admore Tshuma, an expert in social justice is a former Chronicle reporter. He completed his PhD at the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies, UK. He has also worked as a research assistant at the University of Bristol for two important research projects on poverty and was also hired as lecturer at the same university, delivering lectures on poverty and international development (BSc, Hons in Social Policy), and Childhood studies (BSc Childhood Studies). He is currently a programme leader for the BA (Hons) Journalism degree at a UK institution. He is also developing his doctoral work on Truth Commissions, which he hopes will result in a number of journal articles and book chapters.