Podium: Learning to heal wounds of the past

From a speech on the moral consequences of violence in Guatemala given at Oxford
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The Independent Culture
SINCE 1996, dozens of mass graves have been exhumed on the initiative of local communities through Guatemala. In a country where over 50,000 individuals were "disappeared", for many people - both Mayans and Iadinos - exhumations hold out the hope of finding a body to mourn.

Teams of forensic scientists, linked to NGOs and the Catholic Church, have worked to identify victims, and provide details of the massacres which took place in the early Eighties. These exhumations are an integral part of the truth-telling process in Guatemala. They constitute both an acknowledgement of the victims, and a reaffirmation of their living relatives, allowing for a reconstruction of their cultural universe. They also represent a highly concrete form of evidence of military violence - an "objective truth", and a direct condemnation of impunity.

Exhumations and commemorations do not equate with punishment of those responsible for the abuse. Many people in Guatemala are now demanding both judicial sanctions against perpetrators, and economic compensation for their victims: yet given political and legal constraints, and the sheer scale of the repression, they are not likely to secure either. Un- met calls for compensation could potentially be a source of political conflict in the future. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for, in terms of reconciliation, is an agreement between people to reconcile their differences by non-violent means.

Truth-telling processes necessarily start with victims' testimonies, but can also extend to include the perpetrators of violence. The REMHI initiative, like the South African TRC, aimed to give perpetrators of violence a space to give their testimony. A number did come forward, although the majority of accounts were from victims.

Determining degrees of complicity and culpability in widespread human rights' abuse is a problematic and much-debated question. Yet, in Guatemala, where huge numbers of peasants were forced to kill each other by the army during the counter-insurgency war, many of the material authors of atrocities are also victims themselves. Many of these people in the area I worked remained unable to tell their stories, fearing retribution, both from the military (for breaking the complicity of silence) and from their victims. Some appeared to be in denial, unable to confront the enormity of what they had done.

But what of the principal intellectual and material authors of the counter- insurgency violence? In the absence of any "amnesty for truth" deals or powers of subpoena on the part of truth commissions, the experience throughout Latin America has shown that it takes years for military officers responsible for human rights abuse to come forward and tell their story. Most never do, and remain convinced that their actions were justified in the prevailing ideological and political context. This has undoubtedly constituted a weakness of post-conflict reconciliation in the region (only in exceptional cases, such as Chile, have leading members of the transition government acknowledged official responsibility for abuses).

However, even in the case of South Africa, where the TRC can demand testimony in exchange for amnesty, it has not attempted to secure repentance on the part of those guilty of abuses. The question remains as to what extent a new moral community can be built in the absence of recognition of guilt and a serious desire to change by perpetrators.

In Latin America, official processes of remembering have generally not been tied to judicial processes, and have tended not to individualise guilt (name names). Nonetheless, as the Chilean truth and reconciliation commissioner, Jose Zalaquett, has pointed out, they are an official means to try and reconstitute moral and political orders by particular ways of remembering the past.

In this sense, official truth-telling exercises are part of a transitional renegotiation of the normative values, or moral community", of the nation- state. In Guatemala, the continuing power and influence of the military has resulted in a limited mandate for the commission, and a difficult and restricted atmosphere within which to discuss the past.

In addition, despite the efforts made to reform the judicial system as part of the peace process, it remains largely incapable of sanctioning even current abuses of human rights, thereby perpetuating impunity and fear. In such an environment, it is unrealistic to expect that the truth commission alone will significantly strengthen the rule of law.

From `Burying the Past: Justice, Forgiveness & Reconciliation in Politics'