Getting to the bottom of it all
July 29, 2003
FOR many Guyanese, truth seems like a modest goal.
Just a few weeks ago, the country emerged from a 15-month reign of terror in which criminals, invariably referred to by sympathizers as "freedom fighters" or "resistance fighters," killed scores of people, including 22 police officers.
Some politicians, arguing that Guyana could not move forward without reckoning with the past, called for inquiries into police behavior during the crime spree. So President Jagdedo, relenting in discussions with Opposition Leader Corbin, initiated the amendment of Article 197 (A) of the Constitution to allow for approval by Parliament of a Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC).
The role of the DFC is to document any abuse of authority that the police, or individual officers, might have exhibited in their attempt to curtail the spurt of bloodshed, robberies, rape, kidnappings and carjackings that punctuated the crime wave.
Since, as a government of all the people, the administration has acceded to opposition requests for a statutory body to probe law enforcement practices, the same must hold for crime survivors. That is, even as the opposition gropes for answers to perceived police excesses, Government must set up a commission to delve deep into the alleged involvement of individuals and organizations responsible for fueling the engine of crime.
Satisfying the demands of victims without deepening divisions that might have led to the upsurge of violent crimes in the first place must be one of the human rights challenges that the government must meet.
The task isn't going to be easy. Yet the mission is clear.
In South Africa, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began public hearings in April of 1996, the focus was on restitution, not retribution. In Rwanda, where the International War Crimes Tribunal began its prosecutions, also in April of 1996, the aim was to track down and prosecute the leaders of the 1994 genocide in which almost a million people died.
As in Rwanda and South Africa, Guyana's DFC is seeking to uncover the truth. But so also must inquiries into the crime spree by those who were allowed to perpetrate it and those who festered and sheltered the bandits who directly committed the atrocities. Inquiries must also track the millions of dollars in cash and jewelry that the criminals took from their victims.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Some question the merit of trying to unearth the past. 'Why not let the dead rest in peace?' they ask.
The answer, we believe, is two-fold.
One, as Newsweek noted in analyzing the line between justice and revenge in the Rwanda/South Africa investigations, is because "violence and repression are often built on a fabric of lies and secrets. Exposing the truth about atrocities can redeem not just the victims but also the whole society."
Two, getting to the bottom of it all would reiterate Government's no-nonsense approach to thwarting attempts by those who relish subverting the rule of law and fomenting disregard for lawful authority.
In another sense, however, the truth of who was behind the crime wave may not be enough for those who've been traumatized by the scourge.
Apart from redemption and compensation, they may want their repressors brought to justice. "There can be no peace without justice," according to M. Cherif Bassiouni, the UN former chief investigating war crimes in Yugoslavia. "When people feel aggrieved, they cannot reconcile."
Admittedly, investigations and/or trials have their own dangers.
What we're after is the institutionalization of a process of accountability, like the Disciplined Forces Commission, that will serve as a credible deterrent to crimes against humanity.