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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Truth and Reconciliation : which model for Korea ?

Yesterday, in its 2009 International Symposium (see program below*), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea (TRCK) collected priceless insights, very comforting for the future of Transitional Justice in Korea and, beyond, for the future of democracy itself.

This country is about to decide which model to follow, with the unique opportunity to not only follow but lead, and even become a role model for all Asia. The Commission has already accomplished a terrific job, and Korea needs it more than ever, not only because more truth needs to come out. But for reconciliation to succeed, Korea needs its government to play its role, to fully support transitional justice as a whole (i.e. beyond the TRCK, the settlement foundation has yet to be established according to the law), and to guarantee the success of national reconciliation. Any failure to do so would definitely send the wrong message to the world about the level of democracy in Korea.

Hopefully, this simply can't happen in this century.

Yesterday, among the cases from Africa, Americas, Africa, and Europe, I expected the most from Rwanda and indeed, ITCR Judge PARK Seon-ki delivered a comprehensive presentation, including precious insights about the local context (i.e. the Gacaca justice system). I only wish he had more time to raise the "national reconciliation" issues, critical in a country where genocide survivors often live in the same village as their torturers.

Dr. Martin Salm (Germany) put the human factor centerstage, and that's a necessity when all you can give to people who lost 3 years of their lives as forced laborers is 500 euros... not much at the micro level, but his EVZ foundation eventually distributed about 5 billion euros to 1.6 million victims across Europe, and that's not petty money. Korea and Japan can learn a lot from this impressive publicly and privately funded international effort, but also from the importance of the care given to grieving individuals often suffering from isolation. Reconciliation is also about replacing bitterness and anger with peace, recognition, and confidence in the future. Strenghtening society and lifting the whole nation instead of letting it rot it in a nationalist dead end. For chaebols often perceived as distant from the people, contributing to this national cause would not only be the high road, but an easy one at that if they want to enhance their own image.

In Korea like everywhere else, victims first need to be officially, and if possible legally, recognised as victims. This usually comes before financial reparations. Condemning methods (beyond potential political / ideological sensibilities) is also essential : the most powerful sentence ever pronounced by Barack Obama is "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals". Punishing the criminals is yet another level, and Korea will probably fine tune its amnesty / trial ratio. But if much truth remains to be uncovered, the time of reconciliation has come, and that will require pedagogy, sensibility, a lot of work on memory, with visible, tangible, shared elements to not only honor and remember, but also strengthten society and its future.

Honoring the great Latin American literary tradition, former Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission President Salomon Lerner submitted a brilliant text with a universal reach. One can only subscribe to his beautifully crafted focus on the power of words and the clarity of the vision, the importance of "a prudent approach to social expectancies (...) which demands, in turn, a fine and responsible crafting of the discourse and messages", and the need to prolong this writing with "memory, that, in becoming social life and in being fecundated by ethical motivations, becomes a true transformer of history".

I wish Dr. Leigh Payne used a more "responsible crafting of the discourse and messages" in her own conclusions, particularly since those were only temporary conclusions following the first part of her very interesting research on 91 national cases of Transitional Justice. She did use all the right precautions in her speech, but "verba volant, scripta manent", and the slide bluntly singled out TJ systems featuring only truth commissions as potentially "harmful". Such a message could be misunterpreted and thus maybe "harmful" to transitional justice, particularly in countries where truth commissions very existences are threatened... It can be misunderstood and almost sounds like blaming a thermometer for fever : of course, what is "harmful" is the abuses perpetrated, and certainly not the doctor examining the wound and recommanding ways to cure and prevent further damage - what is also "harmful" is the lobby trying to silence the doctor, or to discredit him by depriving him of his most essential tools. TRCs are not into reopening wounds : they are an essential part of the healing process, the guarantee for a better future.

That said, I'm not exactly a model in "fine and responsible crafting of the discourse and messages", and I naturally agree with Dr Payne's results, which look totally logical : Truth Commissions simply cannot work as stand alone tools precisely because they are not meant to work as stand alone tools... except in those countries where they are set up as smoke screens (or rather, as Dr. Payne finely and responsibly put it, "facades"), by governments who want to appear as mature democracies facing their own pasts. That is, fortunately, not the case of Korea, where the TCR was really meant to help the country move to a higher level.

But the TCRK was given a relatively limited reach, and key elements of the Basic Law for the Settlement of Past Incidents have yet to be implemented. Furthermore, the success of the whole system depends on the full support of a government which, these days, can at times appear uncomfortable with transitional justice : as I pointed out earlier**, ultra-conservative die harders keep lobbying against the TCRK, undermining not only Korea's efforts to emerge as a leading nation on the international stage, but also Japan's efforts to at last face its own dark chapters regarding Korea.

Every voice should be heard in the process : as reminded yesterday, that is the essence of democracy. It is not an easy task but there is no other way. The choice is simple : unity or division, reconciliation or hatred, healing or suffering, more democracy or less democracy. And it's binary : not doing anything, letting time pass and tensions rise is equivalent to killing transitional justice altogether.

So the pressure is certainly not on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but on the Korean government, who is compelled to give it a total support. By the end of TRCK's mandate, the world will have an answer : either Korea decides to become a model for Asia, or its rulers decide to cast shame upon themselves.

Seoul Village 2009

* "The Global Trend of Past Settlement and the Task of Korea to Build National Reconciliation" (20091027) :
Opening Remarks (AHN Byung-ook, President, TRCK)
1. The Justice Balance: When Transitional Justice Improves Human Rights and Democracy (Presentation by Dr. Leigh PAYNE, Professor of Sociology, Oxford University - Questions from AHN Kyong-whan, Professor, SNU and former President of Naitonal Human Rights Commission of Korea)
2. Rwanda Genocide, United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Lessons from Rwanda and Africa (Presentation by Judge PARK Seon-ki, ITCR - Questions from LEE Suk-tae, Lawyer, Duk Su Law Office)
3. Achievements and Tasks in confronting the Past in Peru and Latin America (Presentation by Dr. Salomon LERNER FEBRES, Rector Emerito, Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru and former President of the TRC in Peru - Questions from PARK Koo-byoung, Professor, Ajou University)
4. Will remembrance of National Socialist Crimes never end ? Meaning, tasks, and societal role of the Foundation 'Remembrance, Responsibility and Future' (Presentation by Dr. Martin SALM, Chairman of the Board of Directors, EVZ - Questions from SONG Chung-ki, Professor, Kongju National University)
Wrap up session : Evaluation and Proposal for the Past Settlement of Korea

** see "President Lee, keep digging" followed by "A Common History".

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