Public apologies that aim to heal a nation

From Iraq to Germany, leaders have offered mea culpas but no where is contrition more in the works than post-war Colombia, part of a long peace process of truth telling.

Francisco de Roux, president of Colombia's Truth Commission, is greeted by a woman after attending the testimony hearings of former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel leader Rodrigo Londono and former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, in Bogota, August 4.

When done right, apologies by public figures can be disarming, even opening a window for dialogue. In March, for example, German leader Angela Merkel asked forgiveness for her decision to shut the country down for five days to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (The decision was quickly reversed.) One of her political opponents later said the mea culpa was “a service to democracy.”

In Iraq on Monday, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi set a precedent for his country by meeting with a teenage boy who had been tortured by government forces. Mr. al-Kadhimi expressed his pain over the abuse, noted the perpetrators would be tried, and promised an end to such practices. He also pledged to turn what happened “into a source of strength that would serve the community.”

Perhaps the country now experiencing the most public apologies is Colombia. This is a result of a remarkable peace pact in 2016 that ended a half-century of war with a leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The pact promises a measure of mercy from harsh justice for anyone on all sides – whether FARC, right-wing militias, or former officials – if they come clean on their role in atrocities and express remorse. In June, for example, former President Juan Manuel Santos asked forgiveness for the mass killing of civilians by the military when he was defense minister.

One of the most anticipated acts of contrition and confession came Wednesday, when two prominent leaders from opposing sides in the war jointly talked to a group of victims for nearly four hours before Colombia’s Truth Commission. Each man provided details about his motives and wartime actions as well as an apology and a willingness to contribute to reparations.

“I’ve reflected on all of the things I’ve done or provoked, all the things I’ve participated in, on the many people who have died, all the families who lost everything because of us,” said Salvatore Mancuso, a top commander of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a group formed to fight FARC.

For his part, Rodrigo Londoño, the last commander of FARC, said he would be asking for forgiveness for the rest of his life. “The war has no logic and at the time it did not let us think about the damage we were doing,” he said.

The dialogue between the two former foes was as groundbreaking as the fact that they took questions from victims. “We must generate facts so that Colombian families reconcile,” said Mr. Londoño, known more commonly by his nom de guerre, Timochenko.

The truth commission, whose work has barely begun, sees its role as one of healing the pain of victims, helping them understand what happened in the war, and contributing to the prevention of similar conflict. Its president, the Rev. Francisco de Roux, promises to “bring truth to light.”

Colombia still suffers from a high level of violence and political upheaval. The peace process has been uneven. Many victims remain unhappy about its results so far. But one benefit may be a new political moderation. A recent survey of young people found 41% would vote for a candidate from the center, 25% for the left, and 5% for the right.

This shows a forceful rejection of polarization in Colombia, the director of the survey concluded. Perhaps all the apologies, along with a good measure of truth-telling, may have opened a window for dialogue that offers a realistic hope for lasting peace.

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