Thursday, April 21, 2005

Reconciliation methods in traditional societies

The New York Times had a good article on the reconciliation process in Uganda. Northern Uganda has been the home of arguable the world's most savage rebel group, the grossly misnamed Lord's Resistance Army.

The fighting features rebels who call themselves the Lord's Resistance Army and who speak earnestly of the import of the Ten Commandments, but who routinely hack up civilians who get in their way. To add to their numbers, the rebels abduct children in the night, brainwash them in the bush, indoctrinate them by forcing them to kill, and then turn them - 20,000 over the last two decades - into the next wave of ferocious fighters seeking to topple the government. Girls as young as 12 are assigned as rebel commanders' wives. Anyone who does not toe the line is brutally killed, explains The NYT.

The International Criminal Court at The Hague represents one way of holding those who commit atrocities responsible for their crimes. The raw eggs, twigs and livestock that the Acholi people of northern Uganda use in their traditional reconciliation ceremonies represent another.

The two very different systems - one based on Western notions of justice, the other on a deep African tradition of forgiveness - are clashing in their response to one of this continent's most bizarre and brutal guerrilla wars, a conflict that has raged for 18 years in the rugged terrain along Uganda's border with Sudan.

War crimes tribunals should focus on the organizers and instigators of mass atrocities and the worst perpetators, such as LRA leader Joseph Kony, who tells his followers that he is in direct contact with God, and that God says it is right to kill in the cause of toppling [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni's evil government.

Kony explained, "If you pick up an arrow against us and we ended up cutting off the hand you used, who is to blame? You report us with your mouth, and we cut off your lips. Who is to blame? It is you! The Bible says that if your hand, eye or mouth is at fault, it should be cut off."

The rebels began cutting off the lips, hands, noses and breasts of civilians, intending that their victims survive as constant warnings to others.

Much like with the gacaca* system in Rwanda, sticking with traditional notions of reconciliation is generally a good idea, particularly in traditional societies. This is not based on softness, but on pragmatism. These societies had to deal with conflict and its aftermath long before western-style courts with robed judges were introduced.

Furthermore, western systems are more focused on punitive justice whereas post-conflict societies need a greater emphasis on restorative justice if they are ever going to move forward.

War crimes tribunals should focus on scum like Kony. Kids were abducted into the LRA and forced at gunpoint to commit atrocities or drugged up so they'd be more willing to do so, they should follow established paths to reintegrating into society as much as possible.

*-For more on the gacaca system in Rwanda, see here


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