By George Mauzy
When wars or conflicts draw to a close, the healing begins. Truth-and-reconciliation commissions are one tool being used around the world to restore justice and close the wounds. But have they succeeded or failed?
This year's Baker Peace Conference, which opens tonight and continues Friday in Baker University Center, will address that question by hosting discussions surrounding recent truth-and-reconciliation commissions working in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin American countries.
"This is going to be a great conference about tragic circumstances," said Ohio University Associate Professor of History Patrick Barr-Melej, one of nine panelists participating in the conference. "This conference is unfortunately a necessary one. In an ideal world, we would not need peace conferences. That is the tragedy of it all."
Barr-Melej, an expert in Latin American history, said the good news is these types of conferences educate people -- in this case, about the grueling process that people endure so that governments, civilians and militaries are brought to justice and held accountable for their nefarious actions.
Assistant professors of history Nicholas Creary and David Curp, who will join Barr-Melej as panelists, also anticipate some good debate surrounding past reconciliation efforts.
The three will make up the final panel of the conference at 3:15 p.m. Friday in Baker University Center Ballroom. Their assignment is to draw conclusions from all of the information presented during the two-day event.
"We'll certainly ask the questions -- 'Where do we go from here?' and 'What can we learn from past truth-and-reconciliation processes?'" Creary said. "With the situation in Darfur (Sudan) happening now, we should be discussing what steps and processes can be put in place to hold violators of human rights accountable. We should also explore how to bring about a restorative justice to the situation that will eventually allow the people to live together peacefully."
Barr-Melej said discussing reconciliation is an open-ended conversation because many of the affected individuals' wounds are so deep, they have chosen self-induced amnesia.
"Often it can be easier for victims or perpetrators to forget the past than try to remember it and relive it as part of these reconciliation efforts," Barr-Melej said. "This practice is often called 'percepticide,' which means to kill the memories of a particular event."
Curp, who specializes in Eastern Europe history, agrees with Barr-Melej.
"Truth and reconciliation commissions are in some ways last-ditch efforts at peace, and they don't always work," he said. "Some people can't forget their troubled past because they have concrete losses associated with it like the death of a loved one."
He gives the example of Poland, where the quick transition from communism to democracy led to emotional and societal problems in a nation not ready to put government crimes behind it. One important question that remains, he said, is how Poland can move forward without first deciding what to do with the people linked to the former repressive regime who benefited from its abusive policies.
"Sometimes you wonder if countries are trying to make a square circle by hosting truth and reconciliation meetings, because when you think about it, the presumption that truth and reconciliation go together is being extremely optimistic," Curp said.
An expert in African history, Creary said panelists' will draw parallels and discuss commonalities among the various reconciliation hearings and look deeply into the topics discussed. He said the comparison of past reconciliation models, the results of which can be used as a roadmap for the future, will be one of the conference's primary goals.
The conference kicks off at 7:30 p.m. today with a keynote speech by U.S. State Department Foreign Affairs Analyst Steven Stoltenberg in Baker University Center Theatre.
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