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Sorry is the hardest word

Australia has much to learn from reconciliation elsewhere

By Mark Byrne

What do nations need to do to heal the wounds of the past?

At first glance the recent traumatic experiences of South Africa and Timor-Leste (East Timor) might appear to have little in common with a nation like Australia, with its long history of stable democratic government. While acknowledging the historical and cultural differences, however, there may be lessons from the transitional justice processes undertaken in these nations for the Indigenous reconciliation process in Australia.

As South Africa made its “long night’s journey into day” following the end of apartheid rule in the early 1990s, it set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) “for the investigation and the establishment of as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights committed” between 1960 and 1994.

Between 1996 and 1998 the TRC took statements from more than 21,000 victims documenting allegations of over 38,000 human rights crimes, including 10,000 murders. The hearings gave victims the opportunity to speak in public and have their grief and anger heard by perpetrators and the nation. It enabled a new era of South African history to be built on the foundations of a human rights culture and truth about the past, so that the crimes of apartheid could never be denied (as has sometimes happened with the Holocaust).

Nevertheless, the TRC has been widely criticised for two main reasons. First, reparations to survivors and the families of victims were generally regarded as inadequate and have been slow to materialise. Second, offenders were guaranteed amnesty from prosecution if they agreed to appear before the TRC and tell the whole truth.

The TRC was intended from the outset to be an exercise in restorative rather than retributive justice. As TRC Chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu saw it, restorative justice “is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships — with healing, harmony and reconciliation.”

As in South Africa, a charismatic leader who had made peace with his oppressors inspired the reconciliation process in Timor-Leste. Forgiveness of past crimes is as important for President Xanana Gusmao as it was for Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. In her autobiography, A Woman of Independence: A story of love and the birth of a new nation, Kirsty Sword Gusmao tells of a public meeting where many people spoke of their wish to see perpetrators of violence punished.  Xanana Gusmao was “a little sad”, she writes, that so many wanted retribution, until an old man with disfigured hands and arms spoke movingly and with a powerful message:

“I came to understand that whether or not I managed to have the perpetrators punished... it would not give me back the use of my hands. And therefore what was the point of screaming for blood! I urge you all to put behind you that which you cannot change.”

This public meeting was held in November 1999. We do not know how long it took the old man to come to a place of acceptance regarding “this crime... committed many years ago”. At the time of this meeting, many of the crimes committed against the Timorese people were barely a month old. As in South Africa, there was a gulf in Timor-Leste between the spirit of reconciliation promoted by a charismatic leader and some victims’ need for retributive justice.

Like South Africa and Timor-Leste, Australia is a nation still trying to come to terms with a history of one group being oppressed by another. To see ourselves as we have seen these other countries in the recent past — as fractured or wounded and in need of healing — would be a significant step on the road to reconciliation.

The truth commissions of South Africa and Timor-Leste also remind us that uncovering the past is the bedrock of reconciliation. As in our personal relationships, it is difficult to come together if we cannot agree on what has torn us apart. While polls show that most Australians agree that Aboriginal people were mistreated in the past, the nature and extent of this mistreatment has been the subject of much debate in recent years.

Neither is it enough to face the truth about the past and then expect to simply “move on.” Reconciliation usually requires justice as well as truth. The more effective the application of restorative justice processes, the less need there may be for retributive justice. For instance, public expressions of sorrow and contrition for past mistakes — or at least recognition of past injustices — can be effective parts of the healing process as long as they are sincere and are not substitutes for practical measures. More public education may also help to distinguish between remorse and responsibility, so that people today do not feel they are being asked to take on the sins of the past if they are asked to say sorry. And reparations (such as for the Stolen Generations) may be a valid element of restorative justice mechanisms in Australia as elsewhere.

This brings us to the vexed issue of forgiveness. Just as some victims in South Africa and Timor-Leste were not ready to forgive their attackers, so we should not expect Indigenous people in Australia to “forgive and forget” the past just because they may be benefiting from practical programs to improve health, housing, employment, education and the like. As Indigenous leaders have said repeatedly, both practical and symbolic measures are important — as is what has been called “substantive” reconciliation or the “rights agenda,” including land rights, political representation, and a formal treaty or agreement to place relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on a legitimate legal and moral basis.

A final lesson concerns the importance of leadership. Because Mandela and Gusmao emerged from long periods of imprisonment without harbouring resentment against their oppressors and were able to speak of the need for peace and tolerance, they served as powerful examples of reconciliation for their people. In Australia, by contrast, no political, Church or community leader — black or white — has been willing and able to galvanise public support for reconciliation. In the absence of national leadership, in 1997 Indigenous leader Pat Dodson called for a “people's movement for reconciliation.” The people responded: nearly a million voted with their feet in the bridge walks of 2000, and many local reconciliation groups sprang up around the nation. Since then, though, the movement has gradually stagnated in the vacuum of political and moral leadership.

Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer for Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre. This is an edited transcript of his most recent paper, “Roads to Reconciliation” which will be available shortly on Uniya's website, www.uniya.org.


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