South Sudan Analyst and Adviser to both the Church Council and to the country’s Catholic Bishops
“Peace usually has a price,” an Irish missionary friend is fond of telling me (especially after a drink or two), “and working for peace is harder than working for justice”. He was very involved in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle, and he knows what he's talking about. The price is often paid by those who are perceived as holding the moral high ground, and by the victims. It involves looking for a “win-win” situation, which necessarily involves compromise.
South Africa's peaceful transition from the oppression of apartheid to democratic rule is a classic and ground-breaking example of this dynamic. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the amnesty that went with it were by no means universally popular amongst the victims of apartheid. People who were guilty of the most horrific crimes against humanity over a long period not only walked free, but most of them retained their wealth and the respect of their own peer group. Their former comfortable lives changed little, while their victims and victims' relatives still live in poverty. But at the time there was a genuine fear amongst the leaders of the majority population that white security forces would stage a coup d’état if their interests were not secured. The cycle of violence needed to be broken, radically broken, if South Africa were to have any sort of future. Hence the TRC. It had its faults (most notably the lack of reparations to date) but nevertheless it still stands as a monument in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. That the perpetrators of so much horror were allowed to walk free was the price that the majority of people in South Africa paid for peace.
Uganda demonstrates another variant of this dynamic. The long-running conflict in northern Uganda between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the government of Uganda is on a knife-edge. It has been a particularly horrendous conflict, with the use of child soldiers and sex slaves, and with terrible mutilation of civilians. There is no doubt that Joseph Kony and his lieutenants have committed war crimes (although there are also credible allegations against government forces). Because of the level of atrocities and the fact that Kony's political aims are obscure, he has been demonised. For various reasons (not all of them laudable), the Ugandan government referred the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) some years ago. Then came an autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), a country also plagued by LRA atrocities against its civilians. Nobody was surprised when GOSS announced that solving the LRA problem was to be a priority, but there was amazement (and a great deal of criticism) when GOSS gave LRA twenty thousand US dollars for food, and embarked on a peace process. Against all odds, that high-risk strategy led to an agreement.
The main fly in the ointment is the ICC indictment of Kony and other senior LRA figures. ICC, supported by many in the international community, says these cannot be waived. LRA says they will not make peace unless they are assured of amnesty from the ICC, but have indicated their willingness to face Ugandan courts. They are supported by the Ugandan government (which is offering a mixture of formal trials and traditional reconciliation mechanisms), the southern Sudanese mediators and, most importantly, the victims, with their traditional, community and faith leaders. The local people are consistently saying that peace is more important than war crimes trials. They have made a decision about the price they are willing to pay.
The international community finds this very difficult to understand, particularly as Kony is such an obvious war criminal. They are unwilling to condone the price, as they see it, of sacrificing justice for peace. But the South African TRC has set a clear precedent for that choice. And, as a local Catholic priest in northern Uganda points out, "People who don't live here have a hard time understanding this, but they haven't been affected directly by the war. There comes a moment when you say enough is enough. We have to forgive and sit down together."
But is justice being sacrificed? Firstly, the Ugandan government is setting up courts for this case. While it is not yet clear exactly what they will look like, it seems that Uganda is only claiming the same right as other nations to try its own citizens where it is able. As President Yoweri Museveni said recently, “Because he was not under our jurisdiction [as Kony was based in Sudan and Congo], we sought assistance from the ICC. If he signs the peace agreement and returns to our jurisdiction, it becomes our responsibility.” Saddam Hussein was tried by an Iraqi court, not the ICC. The USA claims the right to try its own citizens and has not even signed up to the ICC. Why shouldn't Uganda have the same right?
However the perception of justice being “sacrificed” also depends on the justice paradigm. In most western countries the dominant paradigm is retributive justice. This aims to determine who committed a crime and to punish the perpetrator. The key actor is the state. But restorative justice aims to heal broken relationships, to repair the damage done by the crime, and to bring harmony as widely as possible. The key actors are the victims and perpetrators. It may involve trials and punishment, but they serve the wider whole. In practice most justice systems contain elements of both. Under the restorative justice paradigm, even if Kony is not brought to a domestic war crimes trial, even if he submits to some form of traditional reconciliation process, it does not mean that justice has not been served.
Unfortunately Kony has now refused to sign the final agreement and it seems that hope for a lasting peace is gradually slipping away.
The recent conflict in Kenya represents a slightly different version of the same dynamic. It is generally agreed that Raila Odinga won the election. Yet the negotiations pursued so admirably by Kofi Annan did not demonise Mwai Kibaki nor lead to him being kicked out and replaced by Odinga. In the end it was a power-sharing deal. For once the international community was fairly restrained in its rhetoric and did not target Kibaki but threatened sanctions against any party which obstructed Annan's process. The opposition paid a price – they did not gain the presidency. But they won something more important – the end to violence and the prospect of peace for the people of Kenya.
But, one might exclaim, “The democratic will of the people was not respected!” But what is the “will of the people”? In Britain, parties have won huge landslide majorities in parliament with no more than 40% of the vote. What about the will of the other 60%? In the USA, one presidential candidate wins absolute power with a fraction over 50% of the vote. What about the will of the other 49 point something? The worst dictators often receive a significant part of the vote. Even Robert Mugabe's opponents admit he received 43% in the recent election. One of the flaws of democracy, particularly the first-past-the-post version, is that it represents the will of only part of the population, and the other part is left feeling disenfranchised. These problems are partially solved by proportional representation. But while we may well believe democracy to be the best system of government (or, like Churchill, “that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”), that should not blind us to its weaknesses. A veteran Kenyan journalist recently introduced me to the term “consensual democracy”, as opposed to western-style “competitive democracy”. The overall will of the people for peace and stable governance is honoured more than mathematical calculations of who won absolute power. Democracy is a fine principle, but so is peace, and sometimes the people will accept a solution which puts peace above a literal interpretation of democracy.
Not all victors have been so magnanimous. The official justification for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that the Japanese refused to surrender and the cost in Allied casualties if Japan were to be invaded would far outweigh the civilian deaths caused by the bombs. But what is rarely mentioned is that the Japanese had not refused to surrender; they had refused to surrender unconditionally. The Allies were outraged at the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and the atrocities committed by the Japanese war machine. No doubt they felt a deep sense that justice was on their side and that the Japanese had no right to negotiate terms of surrender. Of course the official justification might not be the only reason why the USA was so keen to drop the bombs. They might have wanted to demonstrate their power to the USSR in the opening phase of the Cold War, or simply to test an exciting new weapon under combat conditions. But for the cost of sitting at the table with the enemy (and probably conceding no more than was actually implemented anyway in terms of safeguarding the Emperor's dignity), hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved, whether Allied servicemen or Japanese civilians – and the horrors of nuclear war would not have been unleashed.
States tend to favour military solutions. Hand in hand with this is the demonisation of the enemy, in the past with demeaning nicknames, nowadays with the label “terrorist”. It is then an easy step to declare that we will “never” negotiate with terrorists. However history proves that military solutions usually don't work, and even if they solve one particular problem they often create (or trigger) many more. They rarely bring lasting peace and stability. And the “terrorists” that we will “never” talk to? Jomo Kenyatta, Menachem Begin, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, to name but a few. It has now become clear that the British government was in fact secretly talking to Irish republican groups since the early 1970s, and recently it has been alleged that MI6 officers have secretly met Taliban leaders. Eventually, when emotions fanned by the tragic events of 11th September 2001 are a few more years behind us, we will hear that western governments are talking to al Quai'da too. Recently no less a person than Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, publicly called for this. “If somebody can show me any terrorism campaign where it has been policed out, I'd be happy to read about it, because I can't think of one.... It means thinking the unthinkable." And why not? Peace has a price.
As I write, the people of Zimbabwe are struggling with their own transition. While it is too early to say how it will end, some of the above dynamics are in play. There are reports that the possibility of power-sharing – á la Kenya – and amnesty for Mugabe and his top supporters – á la Uganda – have been discussed. Unfortunately at the moment confrontation and violence seem to be the dominant strategies.
Peace has a price. The losers must be allowed to retain their dignity and walk away with something. Why is it that so often we want not only to win but also to humiliate our opponent? A humble carpenter once said, “Turn the other cheek” and, “Love your enemies”. And, as he died, he cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
About the Author
John Ashworth, a missionary in Africa since 1976, is a peace advocate and analyst. He currently divides his time between the Denis Hurley Peace Institute in South Africa and churches and NGOs in Sudan. This article was first featured in Spirituality (Dublin, Eire), 14:80, Sep/Oct 2008 and republished with permission from the author.
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