Tag Archives: reconciliation

Scar Face:  Reconciling the Wounds we Barely Acknowledge, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Nov

Stolen 2

I talk to my patients, to my neighbors and colleagues–Jews, Arabs–and I find out they feel as I do: we are more similar than we are different, and we are all fed up with the violence. Izzeldin Abuelaish

Perhaps one day, all these conflicts will end, and it won’t be because of great statesmen or churches or organizations like this one. It’ll be because people have changed.  Kazuo Ishiguro

Propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.  Charlotte Brontë

We must recognize before we can reconcile–especially in instances where we are too blinded by privilege, comfort, and tradition to even notice that reconciliation is needed.  Josh Larsen

I want to live in a neighborhood where people don’t shoot first, don’t sue first, where people are Storycatchers willing to discover in strangers the mirror of themselves. Christina Baldwin

Our week at the UN had more than its share of dramatic events, some of that courtesy of the decision by the US government to disengage the authority of international law and Security Council resolutions from Israel’s settlement expansion.   The long-term implications of this decision are unclear, especially given the high levels of political turmoil in Israel at present, but this represents another (by no means unique) “propensity” by large powers to distance themselves from the legal principles and obligations they seek to impose on others.

Other events were more hopeful, including move-the-pile discussions on peacebuilding reform and a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, tentative progress on negotiated settlements for Syria and Yemen, and still-early efforts to hold Myanmar accountable in international courts for massive abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya.  There was even an event on the ways in which the stigma and lack of health-related resources for menstruation continue to negatively impact school attendance by girls in some global regions.

This last event was linked to a major celebration under the auspices of the General Assembly of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts the largest number of state ratifications of any UN agreement and, over two days, these same states were eager to share the ways in which they have worked to improve conditions for children and, with a bit less enthusiasm, the urgent commitments to children yet to be fulfilled.

Working on the Convention in its infancy, helping in my own small way to create a “world fit for children” was, for me and others, the “gateway” to a longer-term multilateral involvement.   The many children who graced us with their presence this week, some of whom represented their national governments at the podium, reminded us all of the road remaining to be traveled, the decisions and indecisions taking place inside institutions like the United Nations that are not as child-friendly as we might imagine, that are still too much about our own privileges and protocols and not enough about the precarious legacies we have bequeathed to so many young people. We still turn our gaze away from the scars children bear (as highlighted by Azerbaijan) that never should have been inflicted, the search for “peaceful environments” (as a child from Iraq shared) that too often come up empty, our oft-violent and melting planet which will likely occupy too much of their own creative bandwidth going forward.  We are simply too far still from what ought to be (as Portugal stated) something we should all be able to agree on, making a world of peace and justice for children “without tears.”

This 30th anniversary event (with a special appearance by David Beckham) followed by a day a debate on “reconciliation” in the Security Council organized by current president United Kingdom. This event called attention to what South Africa urged as “an enabling environment” for reconciliation that moves along the path between disclosure and punishment and that helps to ensure, as Belgium and others implored, as much of a guarantee as we can muster that conflict once halted will not be allowed to return.

The Secretary General was one of the briefers and was on point in his insistence that while there is no peace without justice, “there is no justice without truth.”  In this context, the SG highlighted the “truth” about the times we are living in and how we managed to collectively arrive at the places we now experience, places of dissonance and distrust, of compromised policy courtesy of both national interest and multilateral “consensus.”  Despite the tools which the SG has sought to improve or bring online, even in this precarious funding environment  — tools such as special political missions, mediation resources, a revamped resident coordinator system and increases in funding for peacebuilding activities – our ability to prevent conflict and to walk the fine line highlighted by South Africa and others linking truth-telling and accountability in situations where conflict prevention proved impossible is all still a work in progress.

Peru was among the Council members highlighting the potential, positive impact of preventive diplomacy on our collective reconciliation burdens, while Indonesia suggested that visible, concrete “peace dividends” could make post-conflict reconciliation more successful.  Beyond the Council members themselves, Kenya promoted the linkage between social and political inclusiveness and successful reconciliation, a theme also taken up by Switzerland which reminded delegates that “dialogue among political elites alone” cannot sustain peace or bring reconciliation.  One of the best lines that we heard all week was from Namibia, whose Ambassador suggested during Monday’s debate that “peace must be boring” given all of the unresolved violence that remains in the world, violence which this Council is mandated to address and towards such resolutions urgent reconciliation measures are called for.

All things considered, this debate was a good start on a subject that ultimately requires considerably more recognition and thoughtfulness.  As one of the civil society briefers noted, one of the requirements of reconciliation is the “re-humanizing” of former enemies.  But, to paraphrase the SG, the times we are living in are characterized by political polarization and massive trust deficits, people who are both “fed up” with the violence that surrounds them but also tired of the “blindness” of much privilege, including a “blindness” to the urgent need for “re-humanizing” in many social and political contexts well beyond the post-conflict dynamic.

Surely there is need for reconciliation in Yemen and Syria, in Myanmar and Cameroon, in South Sudan and Bolivia, in China and the UK.   But the demand for effective reconciliation cannot – must not – be confined to outsized conflicts and political divisions, gross abuses of human rights and existential threats to climate health.   The Security Council has its own internal reconciliation to effect as do many of its governments back in capital, the lack of which leads to conflicts unresolved or dragged through unseemly political deadlocks.  The UN writ large has its own reconciliation to effect in the form of promises made and not kept to constituents who lack viable alternatives for redress and relief.  Communities that are increasingly politically or ethnically polarized have their own reconciliation impediments; people just like us willing to believe, often without evidence, that we “know” the motives of our adversaries. People like us who resolutely fail to see the mirror images of our neighbors in ourselves. People like us who exist in social or policy bubbles that allow us to believe that reconciliation is the task of “someone else,” someone not us.  People like us who are too quick to jump to conclusions more than commitments, who listen too little and talk too much, who “write off” people who don’t toe our ideological lines.  All of this is understandable, but not to our credit and likely not of much value in achieving the future we say we want.

And what of the children who graced us this week let alone the children who endure “cold nights” and whose futures have already been compromised by factors such as unrelenting poverty, persistent conflict and tepid responses to climate threats?   How do we reconcile with these children?  How do we explain to them what we’ve done, how we’ve exercised our authority, and why they have so often been left to fend for themselves? How do we help heal their scars and then together with them build a future that is truly “fit” both for current generations and their progeny to come?

These are hard conversations, harder than we might acknowledge, harder than we might even have the stomach for.  But I’m convinced that if we can find the words and deeds to convince children that we have, in truth, amended our “adult” ways, we will be that much closer to helping the larger world reconcile its own disagreements, renounce its addictions to future-threatening items such as weapons and plastics, and plug the still-formidable gaps that separate our propensities from our principles.

The Art of Forgiveness:  Helping to Make Peace Prevail, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Apr

The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.  Mahatma Gandhi

It is rare that someone specifically asks me to take up a topic for the blog; in this instance a piece on forgiveness in the context of international security and conflict resolution.  For someone who has spent most of his adult life inside Christian churches, this might seem to be a fairly easy assignment. But as a member of the UN community for more than a decade, this task becomes sharply more challenging.   Needless to say, there will be much more than needs to be shared about this beyond what I share here.

To start, we should recognize that “forgiveness” is not a word we use at the UN.   We have in our active lexicon a full complement of justice-related terms, including the “impunity” that we are all struggling to end.   We also speak of “reconciliation” though often without pinpointing either whose responsibility this is (sometimes misapplying that to international courts) or acknowledging the slippery definitions and uses to which reconciliation so often comes attached.  Thankfully as a community, we are becoming more comfortable with the compensatory dimensions of justice, such as when we advocate for “reparations” for persons who have suffered sexual violence in armed conflict, reparations that acknowledge the long path towards healing and the services needed (but often not provided) to move that healing process along successfully.

But “forgiveness” represents a more challenging bar altogether, a bar that mostly eludes us here at the UN for better or (mostly) worse.  Forgiveness is a term that can be found in no statements that I can recall in my long years at UN headquarters, in part because forgiveness is generally attached to acts of contrition that are also highly unusual at the UN.  Here we don’t apologize for behavior; we defend behavior.  We don’t accept responsibility for behavior “on our watch”; instead we express “regret” for wrongdoing, mostly by spoilers or rogue states, sometimes by our own peacekeepers.  Responsibility for the mistakes we make ourselves — the people we failed to protect, the monetary pledges we failed to honor, the promises that we let drop by the wayside, the impunity we have allowed to continue, the vision of abundance blocked by our own narrow bureaucratic interests – is also too rare an occurrence.

And I would suggest here that an acknowledgment of responsibility, along with concrete plans to ensure non-repetition (what the church might call “amendment of life”) is indispensable if forgiveness is to mean anything to healing and wholeness beyond simply a resignation to “get over it” and “move on.”   We can “forgive” wayward actions by individuals or even states if their waywardness is accepted and recidivism is avoided going forward.  But repetitive waywardness, habits of disinterest or abuse, acts that are defended rather than confessed and that are repeated rather than shunned; in these and similar instances “forgiveness” loses much of its power.

Contrition and commitments to amendment are, of course, only one piece of this puzzle.   The other piece has to do with the one who has been wronged, their possible confusion about the motives of the perpetrator, the “confessions” designed more for “damage control” or to reduce the length of court sentences than to actually reconcile with others.   There might also be a struggle of sorts inside the hearts of victims – the struggle between a desire for vengeance against one with whom trust is broken and the allure of genuine healing.  Healing bears its own intimacies; as Gandhi insisted, it also requires its own courage.   It is not just about the promise of “feeling free” as some commentators have put it.   It is also about acknowledging that all of us are, in matters of forgiveness, a “responsible party,” responsible perhaps not for the wrongdoing itself, but certainly for at least part of any reconciliation to come. Not everyone is up to that challenge, even if it is in their best interests to accept its demands.

But it is important to be clear about a couple of things:  First, “forgiveness” at an individual level does not remove the obligation to justice at a social level.   Societies must uphold their legal obligations but should also acknowledge the degree to which punishment of offenders is itself insufficient to bring closure and healing.  We have enough testimony from victims’ family members witnessing the execution of a murderer to know how few empty emotional spaces such retribution actually fills.

Second, there are situations in which “forgiveness” itself must defer to more urgent obligations to enforce the most egregious violations of international law. Last week was rather satisfying for proponents of international justice as both Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić were convicted of horrific crimes. The emotional and physical carnage left in the wake of the violence perpetrated by these men (and others yet to face trial) almost defies imagination.  Any suggestion of “forgiveness” in a context such as this – with little remorse expressed for crimes committed that literally call our humanity into question– trivializes any potential response.  How and why would we possibly forgive those who so eagerly ordered the ruin of so many human lives?

Third, in a world that seems obsessed with pushing away responsibility or even clarity for our behavior and its consequences, there is value to understanding forgiveness as one of those things we learn to do ourselves based on our recognition of the value of having previously been forgiven by others.  We achieve kindness, generosity and even forgiveness through our own disciplines of practice.  But the inspiration for the discipline is the love and kindness we were initially shown by parents and others.  Recognizing and appreciating these points of origin are keys to our emotional well-being.

But such recognition is, more and more, hard to come by. I have had several conversations in the past few months with young people around the UN who were apparently trying to convince me (and no doubt themselves) of their deep disappointment with the behavior of others.  This disappointment is often justified to be sure.  What was less justified is the other part of their testimony – -that “I’ve never done anything wrong to anyone.”

This is where we are heading as a culture unless we are willing to take a hard emotional turn.  Not only are there monstrous and unpunished evils being perpetrated in our world.  Not only are we predisposed to posit ignoble motives to whatever few acts of contrition we can now find.  But we are also increasingly taking on a posture of hyper-sensitivity to the behavior of others all the while applying (an unconvincing) “blanket” immunity to our own.

This “everyone is out to get me, I’ve done nothing wrong” posture is anathema to intimacy, trust-building and emotional courage – the DNA of any forgiveness.  We can use the pious words all we want, but the positive consequences of forgiveness are too often swamped by lingering bitterness and self-interested assessments that make unreasonable assumptions between the ideas lodged in our brains and actual conditions in the world.

The good news about forgiveness is that we still need what it provides. We still can benefit greatly from honest, amendment-laden contrition. We still bear the need to reconcile even more than the need to punish.   The bad news is that we’re quickly losing that capacity for emotional courage and clarity that helps us to reconcile both with those who have wronged us and with our own, often-conflicted motives.

Pursuing justice and ending impunity for abuses is always the right thing to do and we should all seek ways to do so more effectively.   But it is not the final thing we need if we seek reconciled families and communities that can escape the bitterness that robs us of abundance and fuels new cycles of violence.  If reconciliation is a goal, we need to encourage more genuine contrition from ourselves and others; but also strive to establish more trusting and durable personal bonds with those who do so.

Facing History and Ourselves: GA Debate on the Role of International Criminal Justice in Reconciliation

15 Apr

On April 10, the President of the General Assembly’s Office initiated a 1 ½ day event focused on the relationship of international justice – specifically the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – and prospects for national and regional reconciliation. The President of the GA offered opening remarks.

The event drew a large crowd of diplomats and a few civil society representatives, though many of the folks we spoke with came for the spectacle as much as for the content.    Many were aware of the decision by several invited persons – including Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch – to cancel their participation in the event precisely because of the specter of a contentious and one-sided event that hung over the room.

Those who chose to stay away had their share of good reasons to do so.  The event itself was a carefully choreographed and at times intellectually dishonest exercise that sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the Serbian government and people by attacking the foundations of the system of international justice for which Serbian government behavior was an initial impetus.

The event may have done more to polarize the international community than to help explore legitimate concerns regarding the effectiveness of our international legal architecture, specifically concerns focused on the unresolved inconsistencies of the system of justice established by the UN Security Council – itself a politically compromised body.   Sadly the event did too little to enhance understanding of how international law functions, the nature and limitation of Tribunal mandates, or the complementary functions needed to establish conditions of positive reconciliation.  It should be noted here that it was not specifically the task of the Tribunal to promote conditions for reconciliation divorced from (often neglected) initiatives by other parts of the UN system let alone by the regional States themselves.

Nor was there any discussion of how the behavior of Serbs and others led us down the path where Tribunals were considered to be a viable option to national courts which, 20 years after this phase of violence commenced, have still proven themselves unwilling and unable to prosecute their own.   The Serbs-as-victims line is not completely without merit, insofar as international efforts to end impunity were selective and inadvertently reinforced negative stereotypes about Serbian ethnic communities, even regarding the ability of their newly elected representatives to contribute as viable members of the international community.  But such damage has remedial options that should have been explored carefully, one of which should NOT have been calls to dismantle the Tribunal, especially with key figures still awaiting trial. Moreover, we must have more clarity regarding what is wrong with the Tribunals, what can be fixed, and how we would avoid making the same mistakes again in other international fora mandated to end impunity for the most horrible, State-sanctioned crimes.

There is certainly merit to attempts to understand more clearly the limitations and compromises of our system of international criminal justice.   They clearly exist, and it would be wrong to sweep them under the rug.   At the same time, many of the complaints throughout the event were as unbalanced as the alleged behaviors of international prosecutors and their judicial processes.   Below I attempt to wade through what I and others felt to be a swamp of sloppy and compromised analysis to make the following points:

  • While it is important for any Tribunal to be sensitive to the impacts of their prosecutions and convictions on public perceptions, it is commonplace for victims of abuse to be dissatisfied with the results of court action that presumes to apply justice to victims’ allegations.   Courts must weigh options and evidence.   They cannot convict if there is insufficient evidence, regardless of the need of victims for conviction.   Nor can a Tribunal impose punitive measures beyond relevant sentencing guidelines.   It would appear that the Tribunal did its work within an environment where governments and constituents were rooting for it to fail.   That it has partially succeeded in fulfilling its mandate has little to do with levels of regional cooperation, including efforts to understand and work with the Tribunal’s limitations.  The Tribunal was treated by many as more like a tax collector to be spurned than a reconciler to be welcomed, officials’ contentions to the contrary.
  • Moreover, a Tribunal is not responsible for addressing all violations of law, but only those that rise to a level that establishes a clear and compelling interest for international prosecutors. While many of us, for good reason, recoil from the notion of symbolic justice – that is, prosecuting some as a ‘lesson’ to others – there is clearly a tendency to focus the attention of Tribunals on the highest established levels of accountability for gross violence and violations of rights.  Given the many resource and political limitations of the Tribunal, there is little justification for spending time on the equivalent of ‘street level drug dealers’ when the narcotics bosses are firmly within your sights.
  • Tribunals were established by the Security Council as a function of its (self-perceived) Charter-mandated responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.   Many States are uncomfortable (as are we) with the recent history of Council effort to expand its own mandate beyond what we believe to be the intent of the Charter.  Nevertheless, it is not clear where the viable, authorized alternatives might be to Council oversight of peace and security concerns, especially if we accept, which some on the panels clearly did not, that State “sovereignty implies responsibility” for the protection of civilian populations.  Invoking a recycled, Westphalian notion of sovereignty, as some participants did, was most unfortunate.   States participate in the UN, not because it is perfect or because they are rushing to cede national authority to international institutions, but because they recognize the limitations of State centrism in a multi-polar world.     There are things that States want and need that they simply cannot get within a system that holds them solely and rigorously responsible for all internal matters – including the economy, security and international justice.
  • As highlighted on day 2 of the GA debate, a clear majority of States continue to support (in theory and even in practice) the work of international Tribunals while affirming the duty of responsible parties to ensure that justice is pursued in a fair, impartial and vigorous manner.  But it is also clear that ‘responsible parties’ are not confined to Council members and Tribunal officials.   They also include States and the political entities within States.   It is clear to most States that the fair and equitable pursuit of justice in countries wracked by ethnic bitterness and massive human rights violations – let alone the larger agendas of national and regional reconciliation – cannot find success in the absence of support from those very same regional governments.      It was disturbing to many participants at this event that so few commitments to reconciliation – new or existing – were made or highlighted by the very States that were criticizing the limitations of the Tribunal in this area.      It is unfortunate at best for States that have not done nearly enough to foster national and regional reconciliation to claim that a Tribunal somehow has ‘magic bullets’ to share in this area.
  • National justice systems, as many States acknowledge, are ultimately the best setting for the adjudication of grave violations of human rights.   As our program partners in Guatemala indicate, their national courts are taking responsibility for sexual slavery and other crimes committed under previous governments, albeit tentatively and belatedly. National courts in Guatemala have advantages that do not accrue to international Tribunals, including having a more contextualized understanding of the impact of indictments and prosecutions on elements as diverse as national mood and access to justice.  We must utilize and support national judicial authorities wherever it is practical to do so, though the opinion of most at the GA debate is that we must also be able to supplement such capacity at the international level where needed.

At the end of the day, the debate failed some basic tenets of intellectual and political viability.   For instance, it seemed odd at best to attack the Tribunal for not solving problems inconsistent with its mandate, while essentially letting off the hook States and other stakeholders for which reconciliation tasks are very much within their sphere of responsibility.  Moreover,  to dismiss (as did some ‘scholars’ in this process) the relevance of international criminal justice altogether without any viable alternatives  or suggestions for practically modifying the limitations which were legitimately called to account seemed to us to be an unprofessional attempt to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

We can do better than this.  Thankfully, many participating States pointed us in a more fruitful way forward.


—Dr. Robert Zuber