How can a society rebuild itself after a dictatorship or mass crimes? In a probing book “Judge War, judge History”, Pierre Hazan describes the impact of this new national psychoanalysis.

Justice, can it restore societies decimated by war or by dictatorship? Since Nuremberg and afterwards through international criminal courts and truth and reconciliation commissions, a growing number of countries would like to think so.

Researcher, journalist, specialist in humanitarian issues, Pierre Hazan analyses these new processes that experts call transitional justice in his fascinating book, « Judge War, judge History ».

A Sephardic Jew, born in Egypt in 1956 during the Suez crisis, he writes about the end of multiculturalism in the city of Alexandria. He has been a conscientious witness for Le Temps and Libération, newspapers to a number of conflicts (in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Middle East, Sudan…), some of which have led to a truth and reconciliation process.

Why did you write this book?
One of the staring points for this book was the war in the former Yugoslavia that I covered as a journalist. In December 1992, the political leaders and military were in the Palais des Nations in Geneva for peace talks. Indeed in the same building experts were, at the request of the UN Security Council, pontificating about how to sanction those responsible for crimes against humanity, when some of them were only a few metres away!
This schizophrenic UN exercise fascinated me because it dealt with a fundamental question:can we negotiate with war criminals? Can we make moral judgements on history when it is still being made? In other words, what is the linkbetween peace and justice? These questions led me into areas that I explore in the book.

You explain that this transitional justice comes from a western experience.
For a long-time, we considered that silence and oblivion were needed to be able to rebuild societies after dictatorships or periods of mass crimes. De Gaulle said during the cold war in order to justify not showing the film “The Sorrow and the Pity” on French television, “our country does not need truth, but national unity and hope”. After the cold war, the perspective radically changed. It is no longer silence but words which have been seen as essential if the wounds of nations are to be healed.
The Nuremberg trials in 1945-1946 started the process which was halted during the decades of the cold war. But after the cold war some developing countries have played a major role in putting in place public policies on reconciliation.

What was the reaction of non western countries after the cold war?
At the end of the 1980’s three major phenomena happened almost simultaneously: the end of the military juntas in Latin America, the collapse of the communist regimes in central and eastern Europe and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. For all these countries, the challenge is the same: how to manage the transition from an authoritarian or racist regime to a democracy? These countries were innovative and began creating mechanisms for the search for truth. The main idea was to unmask these crimes in order to develop a new national consciousness, which is not based on the denial of the repression but the recognition of the crimes which have been committed. Argentina and Chile have played a key role, by starting the first Truth Commissions.

But the Truth Commission in Argentina came about after the government abandoned the trials against a military which was responsible for the death of 30,000 people, as it feared a putsch?
Yes, but it is fascinating to observe what happened. The trials stopped following the threat of a military putsch. A watered down Truth Commission was created where the torturers did not have to talk publicly. Fifteen years on, what do we see? Argentine society has been gripped by the first trial and the report by the Truth Commission which has even become a best seller. The rise in power of the memory of the disappeared has become a subject of debate across the country. Years later, under pressure from society, successive amnesties and presidential pardons have been questioned and finally repealed. We see that this process of truth, which was extremely flawed at the beginning, has opened locks that we thought would for ever be bolted shut.

Can we say the same about South Africa?
The Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa was built around a deal: if you (the torturers) work with the commission, if you say what you know, then you can ask to be granted an amnesty. Indeed dozens of torturers seized the chance. They publicly spoke about their crimes and revealed a system of repression that no one can deny today.
This recognition of their crimes helped in the construction of a new South African identity, symbolised by the image of the rainbow nation.

But the victims, have they not been forgotten?
Twenty thousand victims testified in public hearings. They took part in the creation of a new South African collective memory. But it is true that the victims felt that they were being asked to forgive their torturers. Many of them were bitter because the reparations that they received were given very late and were for insignificant amounts. While those who benefited economically from apartheid have never had their assets confiscated. The bitterness of some victims was all the more bitter when some torturers refused to testify and were never questioned by the police. Today the question is still unresolved: what should South African society do with the torturers who refused to cooperate with the Truth Commission? In this country where there is immense poverty, the authorities are faced with difficult choices. Should they put their energy into social programmes, education, justice …?

In Morocco also, the torturers, who practised under the regime of Hassan 11, have been protected in spite of the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Mohamed V1?
Actually the torturers have not had to testify, their names were concealed and some still have state jobs. But the easing of freedom of expression has created a space for dialogue about the past. The victims have been able to express themselves. The hearings at the Truth Commission were rebroadcast on TV and radio. It remains to be seen if  that will lead to real political and social transformation. It is still too soon to say.

And if this were only a mirage?
Some Moroccan human rights activists have refused to play the game, criticising this charm offensive by the authorities.
That said, they have astutely made use of the testimony which existed in order to rush in and organise parallel hearings where the names of the torturers were revealed. Once again we see how a process that was very limited at the beginning can create unexpected openings.

Carole Vann, Infosud, The power of the word for truth and justice. Nov 09, 2007