Resonance in Rwanda: What do you want with truth?

Resonance in Rwanda

I have recently returned from Rwanda and am now attending a course focused on transitional justice and truth commissions as a mechanism for dealing with the past. All things ‘dealing with the past’ are, therefore, on my mind. Readers will appreciate that my head is spinning with reactions and questions which I will share here over a number of posts. Please forgive me when I am over-simplistic and feel free to engage with the issues I discuss. There is always more to think about than my teeming mind can weave into one piece. Rwanda has kindled some thoughts and, with a little space from the study visit, it is time to share those thoughts.

What do you want with the truth?

In Rwanda there are undeniable truths. The unimaginable reality of genocide speaks its truth in bald statistics. Approximately 1 million people were killed over 100 days. Almost 80% of the Tutsi population was wiped out together with countless Hutus who tried to save their lives or stood out against what was happening. Staggering numbers of widows and orphans are left to cope. Yet in Rwanda there is hope. One man we met said, “we speak of hope, standing on bones.” Bones are gathered into Memorial sites, sometimes laid bare as a stark reminder of what happened and sometimes buried. Bones, bones, bones. Speaking of hope, standing on bones.
The public narrative is one of hope. A new Rwanda is being built by a society directed towards reconciliation. In quiet, intimate conversations the narrative is that the genocide benefitted no one. Rwandans dare to speak of hope for they face the truth that what happened was so horrific that everything possible must be done, no matter how painful, in order that it will not happen again.
In Northern Ireland we continue to painstakingly and ineffectively excavate the bones of truths and hopelessness is increasing.
On September 27th 2013 some of the “shoot to kill” families, as they have become known, went to court in the hope that the inquests into the deaths of their loved ones would be progressed. The outstanding inquests concern the deaths of five Republican men and a Nationalist teenager in 1982.
The deaths became the subject matter of an Inquiry that resulted in the never published Stalker/Sampson report. On September 27th those present at the preliminary inquest hearing, including members of the shoot to kill families, heard that it may take the PSNI to 2016 to deal with the background material which would allow the inquests to proceed.
It is important to recall that the shootings took place in 1982 and that this is 2013. In all those years the families have not seen due process and they have not heard the truth that they needed to hear. They have grieved the loss of their loved ones whose lives were concluded swiftly while the process of verbalising the truth has been repeatedly stalled. Following last weeks’ proceedings solicitors for the shoot to kill families conclude regretfully that:

… the PSNI approach to this series of Inquests is motivated by an over arching policy of obstructionism to delay the inevitable damning facts of the policy of shoot to kill being laid out for public consideration. It is a shocking indictment that this policy of delay has been such that the parents of Seamus Grew have both passed away in recent months without hearing the inquests into the murder of their son.

The families have the right to know what happened on that day and to have all processes concluded, even if their expectations are not met.
In International Law the right to truth is linked to ‘the disappeared’ and increasingly to the rights to remedy, information and due process. In this it is the duty of the State to preserve all documentation relating to the deaths. While the right to truth is not explicitly spelled out in International Law it flows from a variety of treaties and conventions.
This case opens up a further challenge in Northern Ireland – the challenge of discovering the truth of what happened to those loved ones who were not killed by, or in circumstances involving, the State and for whom there is little recourse beyond the conventional investigative systems. Another stalling of an inquest or case in which the State is likely to be implicated brings no sense of loss to those victims and survivors who are frustrated and increasingly tired of ‘good’ law. That frustration was evidenced in the Newsletter Morning View, September 17th 2013:

This is the hallmark of a civilised society: rigorous adherence to the rule of law such that even those who are very probably guilty of offences are acquitted because this cannot be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
Watching thoroughly bad men walk free in those circumstances is galling in the extreme.
But it is not merely galling, but positively nauseating, when such people sue the authorities for their supposed suffering at the hands of the state when in fact the state has treated them with utter fairness despite their brutality.
Any move to end damages being paid to those who are likely to be guilty, but who cannot be proven to be so, by making them prove their innocence, is welcome. It is a minor step towards rebalancing things back towards the victim.

The problem with this view is that it is only a short step away from a long and cherished history in law which upholds innocence until guilt is proven. Nevertheless, it is clear that a rebalancing is called for and it can be found in and around the matter of truth.
In Northern Ireland when we talk about truth commissions we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking this is something new when the reality is that there are already many truth-seeking mechanisms, inquests among them. Add to that the standard investigative processes, the HET now so deeply disputed, and the Police Ombudsman’s Office. We forget that we already have a commission which allows truth to be told without recourse to normal judicial processes.
The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains was established by treaty between the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland in April 1999 with the necessary laws being put in place the following month. The standards under which the Commission operates smack of the archetypal and dreaded truth commission – “Any evidence obtained (directly or indirectly) by the a Commission is in admissible in evidence in any criminal proceedings.” There are many truth processes already underway in Northern Ireland. But clearly they are far from adequate. Slow and unwieldy truth processes are delivering little and are mistrusted across the community.
Those who traditionally stood against any idea of wrongdoing by the State or its instruments are quietly saying, with increasing persistence, that if someone inside the army or police did wrong then they should be brought to book. There is a chink of light in the impasse, and it has everything to do with truth. It is a window of opportunity ready to be opened by political leaders if they have eyes to see. But there is also the challenge of putting an effective mechanism in place to obtain truth, in whatever form truth is understood, and to do so before ageing relatives and the passing of time mitigate against any possibility of peace of mind and security of heart for those who are left waiting.
Many believe they already know the truth even though processes are not complete. For example, in a post on the Relatives for Justice website regarding the preliminary inquest hearing for the shoot to kill cases the writer expresses what he believes to be true about the six people killed in 1982:

All were unarmed and deliberately killed and then the circumstances of their killings fabricated by the RUC to somehow ‘justify’ the shootings.

He may well be right, as so many will probably turn out to be. But until the processes are complete not everyone is convinced and it is only possible to say that this version of what happened could be right, wrong or incomplete. As we wait for the truth what many believe to be truth takes on a life of it’s own. As Mark Twain put it:

A lie can be half way around the world while truth is putting on its shoes.

Our public narrative is becoming increasingly hopeless. We still have to face the truth about what happened and the truth is that unless we do something soon, unless we find the leadership capacity to bring the past to a conclusion, and unless we are willing of strive for truth and justice delivered efficiently, then we are likely to be standing on the bare bones of our history without hope and for a very long time to come.
There are many public narratives. For some the narrative is that we have come a long way, and we have. For others the public narrative is that things are only getting worse. In the quiet intimacy of conversation there is more than a hint of a narrative which tells us that what we are doing is, quite simply, not good enough. For victims and survivors and those who were close to the conflict, what we are engaged in when it comes to the truth is just not good enough and it mitigates against hope.
Standing on the bones of our history, contested and all as that history is, if there is no hope then we will perish on the rock of pretence. Some among us will perish in despair which could be avoided. Victims and survivors say they want truth. Some in society believe it is right to seek and tell and truth. Others in society have the view that no one will benefit from the truth. Whatever any of us think we are obliged to listen to victims and survivors who have the right to truth if that is what they want. The rest of us, and our political leaders in particular, owe them the respect of listening and responding without delay.


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