An Introduction to Our Topic: Truth and Reconciliation

Our newsletter on truth and reconciliation captures the essence of peacemaking – the rebuilding of broken relationships, whether they be in our individual lives or between communities. Reconciliation can best be understood as a process; one that can happen quickly when someone who has wronged us offers a sincere apology.  However, it can take years and even span the generations, with many stops and starts along the way, in the case of political enemies. Our reasons for starting the process are varied and may be very practical for the absence of real efforts at reconciliation between conflicting groups can often mean continued violence.  As Nelson Mandela once remarked about the process of working with those who had caused tremendous suffering to South Africa’s black majority: ‘It was very repugnant to think that we could sit down with those people, but we had to subject our plan to our brains and to say, “without these enemies of ours, we can never bring about a peaceful transformation to this country”’ (Shriver 2003: 27).  

The relationship between truth and reconciliation is a complex one. Speaking dark truths – those forgotten through psychological processes, official denials or unwritten cultural rules – can foster resentment and reignite old conflicts.  But, as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard pointed out, “Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself” (quoted in Minow 2002: 16). Speaking of Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian genocide, a group of 150 distinguished scholars and writers wrote: “Denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators. Denial murders the dignity of survivors and seeks to destroy the remembrance of the crime” (Lazare: 69). While remembering the errors of history do not eliminate our potential to repeat them, forgetting them makes it far more likely we will.

The most important truths are not necessarily “the facts”; sometimes it is best to allow those on opposing sides to disagree over some of “the facts”.  What are needed to move beyond old grievances are the more personal truths of people’s lives. Listening to another’s pain can move us like nothing else, evoking our empathy but also our desires to redress wrongs. The Deputy Chair of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission sought a complex truth, one that “went from bare facts to knowledge (historically contexted truth) to acknowledgement of the human agency that makes history to accountability of all concerned for action in the future to heal and curb the evils of the past” (Schriver 2005:108).      

Truth and reconciliation commissions are often seen as a means to build these deeper understandings of serious violations of human rights; they allow victims to speak their own truths without interruption and cross-examination and encourage perpetrators to come clean.  However, truth and reconciliation commissions involve difficult compromises: standards of due process are compromised and the demand for punishment is replaced by a search for truth. For many this represents a denial of justice, one that should only be used if fair trials are not possible, but others see the potential for a different restorative form of justice where the focus is on healing the pain of the victims and obtaining a genuine acknowledgement of the crimes committed. While many perpetrators who came forward in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission did not express remorse for what they had done, the transformative impact of such truth-telling was evident.  After a colonel who headed the military force that carried out a massacre said:

We are sorry, the burden of the Bisho massacre will be on our soldiers for the rest of our lives. We cannot wish it away. It happened. But please, I ask the victims not to forget but to forgive us. To get the soldiers back into the community, to accept them fully, to try to understand also the pressure they were under. This is all I can do.”

The audience, which included many of the victims of the massacre and their relatives, sat in stunned silence and then burst into applause (Shriver 2005: 110).

While it is difficult to see the humanity in our enemies, it is even more difficult to see the potential for inhumanity in ourselves, but all of our histories – personal and collective – probably have their share of wrongdoing.  As International Law Professor Martha Minow wrote: “The fate of our fate is in our hands. Especially for those of us who feel we are bystanders in a world of atrocities, we have a challenge. We find a flawed, only partially remembered world; we can and must have a hand in what we come to remember so we can transform the future that awaits (2002: 29).

The articles in this collection are varied. Some examine the complexities of efforts at reconciliation, while underlining the necessity of our efforts; while others raise some difficult truths. Our newsletter next semester will continue along these lines. At present, we have a powerful response by Dawson’s Alexandra Law to the common argument that it is inappropriate for governments to apologize or offer compensation for harms committed long ago. Philosopher Trudy Govier, who has written extensively on the issues of forgiveness and reconciliation, offers us an excerpt from a larger work, which examines the current Rwandan government’s efforts to force its population to reconcile after its genocide. Finally, the article “Reconciling Red and White Poppies” tackles an issue that continues to divide many, suggesting that finding a common understanding is essential for any hope of ending war.  You will also find other useful materials that remind us that, despite its difficulties, deep conflicts can be repaired, and a link to a wonderful article by the former Chancellor and Dean of Harvard Medical School, Aaron Lazare, on the power of the simple act of apologizing.  


Works Cited

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Minow, Martha.. “Memory and Hate: Are There Lessons from Around the World?” Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law and Repair. Ed. Martha Minow. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 14-30.

Shriver, Donald W. “Where and When in Political Life is Justice Served by Forgiveness?” Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice after Civil Conflict. Ed. Nigel Biggar. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2003. 25-43.

Shriver, Donald W. Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College

One Response to An Introduction to Our Topic: Truth and Reconciliation

  1. Cynthia C May 10, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    I definitely agree with Minow about forgiveness being an individual act. Forgiveness must be on the individual level because it has to do with the victims own healing process. Truth telling and remorse play a role in the victims’ ability or willingness to forgive. In some cases truth can be healing, but in others, it can cause harm because the perpetrators do not show remorse.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes