As conflicts move from violence and intractability to the negotiation of peace agreements and ceasefires, individuals find they are changing, often in subconscious ways. They begin to change their perception of the other, their perception of their role in the conflict, and start to see that deeply felt beliefs such as compromise and dialogue are not signs of weakness and humiliation, but are in fact are positive steps towards achieving peace and reaching the very goals they once picked up arms to achieve.
Recent history is full of examples from Latin America, Africa or Asia where former guerilla fighters have sat down for peaceful discussion with once bitter enemies and chosen to be part of the political process, or where government leaders have had the courage to talk to those involved in violent struggle. Similarly, as the case of South Africa illustrates, even the most prejudice societies can be turned around and people’s perceptions of each other changed. In these cases, both sides have come closer to understanding how their common human responses to repression and conflict can help them form a shared peaceful future.
The examples below are a few illustrative cases in which the Project on Justice in Times of Transition has had a hand in facilitating positive transformations. The stories show how people can change.
Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams pictured right in 2007 during the confirmation of the North Ireland power sharing agreement. Observers of Northern Irish history could never contemplate the photo above. Paisley, the leader the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, never in over forty years of deep hatred shared a negotiating table or appeared in public together. Though once former foes they now share a political office.
In 1995, the Project organized a significant event in Northern Ireland’s history that brought together the senior leaders of all the political parties, paramilitary groups, civil society and the Irish and British governments to discuss the possibility of peace. Senior negotiators from South Africa, El Salvador, Colombia, Poland and the Middle East shared their experience in ending longstanding conflicts and dictatorships. In our subsequent 17 initiatives, a significant focus of the Project’s work has been to build leadership capacity among political party leaders on all sides and in the process help them begin to trust each other. The Project’s work culminated in a workshop for leading DUP members focused on these issues. These leadership workshops helped the parties establish regular working relations and enabled better joint governance in the Assembly.
After over 20 years as a commander of Colombian ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) guerilla group, Francisco Galán, pictured above with the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, recently renounced violence as a means for social change. Since then, Galán has been distanced from the ELN, but actively is working with the Project towards peaceful dialogue in Colombia.
The Project’s efforts in Colombia have helped civil society actors and former guerilla members gain legitimacy in society through peaceful, political avenues. To Colombia we have brought key international figures from Northern Ireland, the Philippines, and Central America who themselves have made a transition from fighter to politician. Our efforts have assisted members of ELN and the Colombian government to consider how to negotiate a ceasefire and to think about what kind of transformations to prepare for—both as individuals and as a guerilla movement transitioning into a legitimate political party.
From the same premise that people can change, we believe individuals who had suffered under repression and civil conflict can understand each other, and while there are very real differences between various countries and their respective national histories, we believe that dictatorships share many of the same characteristics, and that humans fundamentally react to them in the same ways. In our experience we find that people tend to be reluctant to listen to or value the experiences of outsiders, who they feel they cannot relate to their particular scenario. However, in many of our initiatives, once common ground is found, open and sincere dialog emerges around even the most personal and controversial issues.
Our efforts bring together people from diverse settings to share their approaches to and views of similar problems. By finding common ground in their counterparts from other conflict settings, they can begin to learn and see possible solutions to the challenges they had faced in their home countries.
The Salzburg conference was the first event organized to help the new leaders of post-communist Europe to address the painful legacy of their past, which threatened to undermine the process of democratization and reconciliation. We introduced participants to the transition experiences of other countries in their legal, political and moral dimensions from the perspectives of political leaders and other individuals who had been directly involved in those transitions. This event was the one of the key catalysts in launching the transitional justice field.
In each of the conference’s sessions, Latin Americans, West Europeans and Americans described how their countries had dealt with the particular issue under discussion, attempted to identify the key components of the issue, and reviewed the democratic legal principles guiding action on the issue. Participants of the conference connected with each other -they saw the pained expressions on each other’s faces as they shared their stories, and they realized that they had more in common than they had first imagined. While there were still some heated disagreements, these were now conducted as debates rather than arguments. And then, together, the participants started proposing solutions to the challenges facing the post-communist countries, solutions that were inspired by learning what other countries had done in the past.
The Project helped organize the first major conference in South Africa that focused the country’s new leadership on strategies for dealing with the legacy of apartheid, the building of democracy and fostering national reconciliation. This conference introduced the concept of the truth commission pioneered by Argentina and Chile into the South African debate, which ultimately led to the creation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bringing together participants from places as varied as Poland, Israel, and El Salvador, the conference brought stories and perspective rarely heard in South African discourse.