Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Mercy vs. justice as Liberia heals itself
Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks a balance between punishment and forgiveness.
On a remote, palm-lined beach along West Africa's coast, inside a breeze-filled bungalow, an earnest cabal of nine men and women is plotting to overthrow the old order in their war-weary homeland.Skip to next paragraph
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With laptops blazing, and a bed sheet strung up for viewing PowerPoint presentations, they debate such issues as how to help victims of war testify in public – and whether to subpoena warlords-turned-members of parliament.
Meet the members of Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Theirs is the latest of the 30-plus truth commissions held around the world since 1974, including South Africa's, which famously charted a healing path for its postapartheid nation.
The group includes a bishop who unconditionally forgave the men who killed his father, a former journalist who gave up the good life in America to help her homeland, and a young, untested chairman who'll be the ultimate arbiter as the TRC tackles a looming dilemma: Should wrongdoers – in this case warlords and fighters who carried out horrific wartime atrocities – be punished or forgiven or something in between? In short, what's the best path to healing: justice or mercy?
In a fragile nation emerging from 14 years of civil war, the TRC members know that too much rough-edged "justice" risks igniting backlashes and fresh violence. Yet too much well-meaning "mercy" may leave grievances unaddressed, setting the stage for future conflict.
Clearly, much is at stake, not least because Liberia is so connected with its war-prone West African neighborhood. Another Liberian war could reignite regional instability. Nor are there obvious institutions – besides the TRC – to help build a durable peace. As Priscilla Hayner of the New-York-based International Center for Transitional Justice says of the TRC: "This is sort of it."
At this early stage in the TRC's existence, there isn't yet unanimity of vision among its members. The Monitor profiles three key commissioners and explores their varying views of the best justice-mercy recipe for healing their nation.
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A short, spry septuagenarian, Arthur Kulah didn't wait for the men who killed his father to apologize. He forgave them first. He did the same for their rebel commander – now a member of parliament – whose orders the men were following when they murdered Bishop Kulah's dad during the 1990-2003 war.
Kulah was a prominent leader, the head of Liberia's Methodist church. But that didn't save him or his family. His father and two brothers were killed. His elderly mother collapsed after fleeing fighting. His house was torched, and he was threatened with death.
Yet after the conflict, Kulah sought out and forgave those involved. It's what he calls "unconditional forgiveness" – not waiting for apologies before forgiving. And as the TRC wrestles with how to deal with killers, Kulah is one of the strongest voices for forgiveness.
One benefit of his approach, he says, is that it often prompts wrongdoers to confess and apologize: "When I take the initiative, people come and say they're sorry." In the case of his father's killers, the commander-turned-politician responded by taking responsibility for his deeds, apologizing, and explaining details about the incident and the war. Kulah says they're now on good terms.
"What if I hadn't forgiven him?" Kulah asks. "Each time I would see him, I would try to get even." Also, he says, "If you don't forgive, it's a burden you will carry through your whole life." Instead, "If you're able to get rid of that emotional hurt" – through forgiveness – "you can heal yourself."
These are high-minded words in a country where soldiers routinely decorated roadblocks with human intestines or made bets on the sex of an unborn child before killing its mother. In all, some 150,000 of Liberia's 3 million people perished in a war sparked by the warlord and eventual president, Charles Taylor. It involved fighters from many ethnic groups – and was fueled by illicit trade in diamonds and timber.