Professor of Political Science, Department of Politics and International Relations, Wheaton College
Topics: apology and forgiveness, human rights, justice
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2004
Listen to Full Interview
- South Africa
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission
- Economic Development
- Retributive Approaches to Justice
- Nature and Importance of Forgiveness
- Forgiveness Across Different Religions
Q: So Mark, if you could, give me a brief overview of your work.
A: Well, I am a professor of international relations at Wheaton College, and for the past 25-30 years I've been working as a scholar of international affairs, with my specialization being in international ethics. My interests in conflict resolution and mediation stem from the fact that early on, when I taught a basic, introductory course to politics, I did so from the standpoint of doing politics as a process of conflict management. So, in fact, the first book I ever did was titled, "The Process of Conflict Management: An Introduction to Politics," published by Scott Forsman many, many years ago. At that point, I did a lot of reading and crossed the names Boulding, Deutsch, Coser, etc. It's been many years since I've been within the community of mediators and conflict resolution scholars, but my more recent work has focused on how you go about trying to rebuild and restore civic societies that have suffered very deep, systemic wrongs. I came to this topic because I was concerned with the ethics of how you go about dealing with broad systemic wrongs, so I started traveling to South Africa and did interviews and one thing led to the next. A man -- I can't think of his name right now -- wrote a book on forgiveness, and I'd always thought that topics like reconciliation and forgiveness applied to individuals, but not to collectives. Don Shriver's book, "An Ethic for Enemies" made me think very, very deeply and hard. It was a good book; I didn't think he got it quite right, and so the book that I just published, "The Healing of Nations," is an effort to really examine the possibility that these concepts of personal morality that are shared across religions -- but especially Christianity -- might have some contribution to conflict resolution in deeply divided societies.
Q: Is there a particularly inspiring story that comes to mind in that context?
A: I think the most inspiring story is the case of South Africa. When I first went to South Africa, I thought it was just a matter of time before South Africa would explode and would experience a very violent war. When I first went there in '86, and then again in '87, the situation was very tense; economic sanctions had been imposed by the United States in '86. It was a very fragile society, I thought, under the harsh rule of a white democratic but authoritarian regime nonetheless, and really to go back to South Africa today is really to experience a miracle of transformation. For example, I would say that for all the celebration in Northern Ireland about the Good Friday Accords, the only thing the Good Friday Accords did was to simply say, "Let's not kill each other," and they let all the perpetrators who were in prison out of jail and they established a power-sharing arrangement of sorts, but compared to Northern Ireland it seems to me the South Africa story is really quite extraordinary.
Q: So how did it go further? Put it in the context with Northern Ireland and perhaps even the Chilean and Argentinean examples that you use in your book. How did the South African example go further, and what can we learn from that?
A: That's a very good question. I would say that a number of factors in the South Africa case are really quite unique. One of them is the person of Desmond Tutu, but especially Nelson Mandela. I happen to think that the reason why South Africa's model succeeded so well, is that they did not follow the retributive model that was followed especially in Argentina and to a lesser extent, in a very small way in Chile. In a normal civil society context, the retributive justice system is crucial to maintain the rule of law. In the context, however, where you're trying to deal with a fragile society like Bosnia or Kosovo, simply to focus your energy on the rule of law and trying to identify and then prosecute people who are responsible for systemic wrong-doing is to really put your focus on something that probably would not contribute to the healing of relationships. What the South Africa model does is that it focuses on how to restore and how to rebuild; it focuses on the future, and it comes at the expense of the people who have been victimized in the past.
Q: In the sense that the retributive aspect is not there. In other words, we're not taking people to court and prosecuting them.
A: That's correct. If victims, in order for their own healing, need to see offenders prosecuted, the South Africa model doesn't do that. But the point is that the retributive model really doesn't focus on the healing of victims. It's a part of the rule of law and it need not and it does not necessarily contribute to the healing of offenders and especially victims. The strength of the South Africa model is that it takes an alternative paradigm of restorative justice which is not fully justice, but it's a different kind of justice in the sense that it calls attention to the healing of the social fabric and political fabric and hopefully the moral/cultural fabric of society. What made the South Africa case possible was that you had people of faith on both sides of the aisle. Very large numbers of people who professed the Christian faith, which has a very central element of forgiveness in that faith. And then you have extraordinary leadership, not just on the ANC side, in the case of Nelson Mandela, who is a man of enormous, enormous moral courage, but also on the opposite side of President De Klerk, who was a great statesman. I guess if you could take the South Africa model and try to replicate it in the Middle East, or Kosovo, but I don't see that happening.
Q: Because of the leadership focus that you're talking about?
A: Yeah. For example, in Kosovo and Bosnia, you have a culture that emphasizes historic wrongs. In the Middle East, when I've talked to Palistinians or Israelis, you know, they want to start with history lessons that go back a hundred, two hundred, in some cases thousands of years, and what we do know is that if there is going to peace in the Middle East, Palestinians and Jews are going to have to learn to live with each other, and that means learning to recognize the humanity of each other and to compromise.
Q: So there are two points to that model. One, you had mentioned the leaders in the South African example and second, the historical focus in the Middle East. The historical focus was absent in the South African case?
A: No, no. The bargain in South Africa, in the truth commission, was that they would search not for the long-term truth, but the sort-term truth as to what had happened to people who had disappeared or been killed. The aim of the truth commission was to urge people who had lost loved ones -- and it focused not on torture but focused on the killing, the disappearance of people -- to have them come forward and to testify and to tell their stories with the hope that they would receive some kind of reparation and recognition. What the South Africa model does, is it focuses on the victim, for them to tell their stories, and gives some symbolic recognition that the state is culpable for the disappearance of these people. Those who had participated in the wrong-doing, either within the context of the state or who had done so in more semi-official ways (there were people who acted as agents of the state, but not in an official capacity), these people who were involved in these wrongs, if they told the truth and if they confessed fully, completely and accurately, they had the possibility of amnesty. So the fundamental bargain in South Africa is that you trade truth-telling in the hope of receiving -- but not necessarily guaranteed -- in the hope of receiving freedom from prosecution.
Q: Not necessarily? What is the condition under which you would be guaranteed amnesty?
A: It wasn't guaranteed. In other words, once you did that you went before a panel, the amnesty panel, very distinguished judges that would decide whether in fact... So out of the 7,000 people who applied for amnesty, many of them were disallowed simply on procedural grounds, because you had to have committed a crime during a certain period of time, and the other thing was that you had to disclose fully and completely. But some 1,000 people, over a thousand people were given amnesty.
Q: So the vast majority were not? The vast majority were prosecuted?
A: No, they were not prosecuted, they were eligible for prosecution. In other words, part of it is that South Africa is still in a period of transition and Mandela and more recently the Mbecki government has not been eager to use its scarce capital, scarce resources, to do that.
Q: Now is that a strictly resources calculation, or is there a political, reconciliation, forgiveness component to it?
A: My reading of it was that the unemployment rate in still hovers at over 30% and so they've had a major crime problem and the transition has gone relatively well. One of the sad things is that frequently foreigners, outsiders, third-partiers, they get interested in these issues, so there was a great deal of European and American interest in South Africa at the height of the apartheid era. There were all these campaigns in the United States in the investment and sanctions in the mid '80s. Once the democratic transition begins in South Africa, this European and American interest in the fate of the South Africans really wanes and what you find is, as a matter of fact, is far less foreign direct investment proportionately today in South Africa than let's say in the early 1970s. And the same thing is true, for example, when the Central American crisis was going on, you had all these Europeans that where involved and invested in the justice process, but when the elections return and the conflict quiets down, the people just look elsewhere. One of the problems is that there hasn't been the international community, generally the developed countries, have not focused on the well-being of, as I think they should, of job creation in South Africa.
Q: Okay, I'm going to ask another question about Chile in a second, but before that, let me take the retributive justice stand and ask you what about the idea that if you don't prosecute people that have committed criminal acts, that in some way you're condoning those acts or preventing that it will happen again somewhere else? The argument that someone in power in another place will not do the horrific crimes that other leaders have done because they have seen the effect of the prosecution that they've had?
A: Well I am against crime, I think anyone who commits an offense should be prosecuted, but it just seems to me, however, that ??? take the trial of Milosevic, which is now in its fourth year and has cost over $250 million. Surely when this trial ends, maybe there will be a sense of victory for some people, in the meantime however the common Serbian who suffered under Milosevic, the people in Bosnia or Kosovo who suffered from the decisions of Milosevic, their lives have been made no better. I think retributive justice internationally, or trans-nationally, or systemically, is a little different that retributive justice in a place like Boulder, Colorado where, if there is a crime, it's really critical to do that. When you have people who have been involved in conflicts, I think it becomes -- I don't want to say counterproductive, but I don't think you want to put all your energy in that. Maybe there isn't a way to...but if there is a way to keep Milosevic incarcerated and in a quiet place, let's do it that way, but it seems to me to have a major trial with all the publicity, and this has been going on now for four years, Milosevic has continued to manipulate the process. The same thing is true for the Arusha Trials.
Q: In Burundi and Rwanda.
A: Yes the Arusha in Tanzania regarding the Rwandan genocide. It's not that I'm against that; I just think it's far better for the people themselves to try to reconstruct and move on. I've not been to Rwanda, but certainly the Rwandan people are not all that excited about the Arusha Trials. The big challenge in Rwanda is that there are people who live in a neighborhood where they know that this person two blocks down the street was responsible for the killings of their loved ones. The question is, has the international community come to assist those people in how to reconstruct their lives? And it seems to me that what happens is that we get focused on trials and we tend to underestimate the other. I'm really interested not so much in punishment but really in prevention. The great challenge is to make sure that wrong-doing is not repeated and that we send a message loudly and clearly that if you do, you will be held accountable, but not necessarily in a long, three-, four-, or five-year trial that is to nobody's advantage.
Q: So aside from the just principle of retributive justice for war criminals, or leaders who have committed heinous crimes, the practical reality and the practical implications and impact of retributive justice verses some other kind of forgiveness process or reconciliation process, it's worth looking into the alternative to retributive justice.
A: Absolutely. I think to have trials in Northern Ireland would be a big mistake. I think even, for example, right now with Iraq, if there is going to be a trial and I think there should be, let the Iraqis do a trial of Saddam Hussein, but I think the last thing you want is for the UN to have an international tribunal and to move him to some capital, like the Hague... The really important thing is the reconstruction of the Iraqi society so that the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis learn to get along, one with the other. That's what 99% of the international focus should be on.
Q: And what would that look like? That wouldn't exactly be a truth and reconciliation commission in Iraq, or would it?
A: That's a very interesting question. Accountability is crucial to the moral health of a community; in other words, what you can't do is pretend or deny, so at the heart, for example in my book, it is to call forth that truth-telling is absolute. You need to disclose enough about the past so that you don't hide the past. And there are a number of ways that you can do this, and the truth commission is one of them. What's crucial, though, is not to empower some three people in the abstract, say some three international commissioners as was the case in El Salvador, or to have as in Peru some sort of a commission. If you're going to do it, what you're going to what to do is develop a shared discourse, and I think South Africa did it right. You have a law passed by the Parliament, and then it becomes a very open...very open hearings...The trials in Argentina were very open, the truth commission was a presidential appointed commission that did it secretly. There are some good things about the Argentinean truth commission, some good things about the Chilean truth commission, but the South Africans did it much better in the sense that it was an all-encompassing process, that when completed allowed the entire South African community to say, "Yeah, these things happened, partially, and in some cases maybe completely." And there is the second part of acknowledgement, some level of official acknowledgment that some of these things happened. I think in Chile, there was a very special moment after the truth commission report came out, when President Aylwin went on television and repented and apologized on behalf of the state for the crimes committed beforehand that had been made public by the truth commission. It was a very special moment symbolically, and he went to the national stadium, in a ceremonial way, which is where 40,000 people had been detained after the coup in '73. So I think these symbolic acts are really crucial to disclose truth, to acknowledge truth and then somehow, in a miraculous way, if you can move forward from that to make remembrance redemptive, the great challenge is to look back, do truth-telling and then to make that a redemptive, healing moment.
Q: Rather than a vindictive one.
A: That's correct, or people are still captured. There have been people who have been hurt by history, and they become captured by the past.
Q: That's my next question. I know you've done many interviews, in Chile for example. Does someone who lost a family member in the disappearances, there are so many places -- Argentina, Sierra Leone, you mentioned, you name it, -- does someone who experienced that kind of loss, in your experience interviewing people, where they satisfied or some way reconciled -- I don't know if reconciled is the right word, we'll stick with satisfied -- with President Aylwin coming forth and saying that? Is that enough for them, or who is that enough for? Do you know what I mean?
A: That is a very good question. The reason why I ended up writing the book is not because I got encouragement from either victims or people who were responsible for some of the violence. In both cases, both of them had no place for reconciliation, both of them had no interest in forgiveness, both of them had no interest in dealing one with the other. So it was precisely the finding that the victims were captured by victimhood and the injustice that they had received and the perpetrators captured by the righteousness of their own acts years ago, they felt complicity and at times sorrow for the things that they had to do, but they felt justified by the fact that there was terror or whatever the justifications were, and they felt that if somebody needed to apologize, for example in Argentina, I had a very senior military man say, "If there is an apology that needs to be made, it should be made by the political leaders who began this process and secondly by the middle class, who asked to be protected from terror, and thirdly the terrorists. After those three groups have in fact apologized, then we ourselves will come forward and disclose and express our apologies." When you begin feeding this issue, it actually accentuates, and deepens the cleavage rather than softens it.
Q: Okay, so moving forward then. That's a tremendous statement, let the terrorists ask for forgiveness, let the middle class...
A: By the way, in Argentina, ???, the head of the ??? in a sort of mild way came forward and expressed deep sorrow. The IRA, a couple of years ago, made a statement of apology of sorts for the innocent victims. But we're talking about something very difficult here, which from my own experience if I've done something wrong I don't want to apologize, it's the most difficult thing that I know.
Q: Let alone if you stake your entire reputation on it.
Q: So did the South Africans do it right? Was it enough in South Africa, and why can't we do that in Argentina?
A: I think the reality of it is that when really egregious offenses occur, there is no way of bringing back the past, that's the reality. So we have to accept the second-, third-, fourth-best option.
Q: As a fundamental principle, it's never going to be enough.
A: It will never be enough. In other words, forgiveness always is, if somebody wrongs me and I forgive them and let them off the hook, it's a recognition that in my mind that that person has a shared humanity with me and that for my own health and wellbeing I'd better lift the burden of hatred, lest that hatred itself complicate the very injury that I'm carrying. If you don't let go, you don't heal, you don't forgive, you don't become reconciled, the original injury actually is exacerbated. You see this in the Middle East and wherever there are these intractable conflicts.
Q: Right, so it sounds like the baseline goal in any kind of reconciliation project would be to prevent the self-consumption of someone who feels like they have been injured by the other. Maybe it's not a modest goal, but it certainly falls short of when you hear reconciliation it sounds like a very full and complete process whereby people are healed, but in fact we're talking about, "let's make sure this doesn't eat me alive," basically.
A: Let me just say in passing here, I'm a political scientist. I'm a realist by training. What I'm saying is so removed from the field of Political Science, people who study liberal democratic theory would be aghast at what I'm saying right now because it runs counter to the traditional, accepted theory about how to constitute free, democratic and stable societies. What I'm talking about is not normal societies, I'm talking about deeply divided societies like Iraq, Kosovo if you want to foment the healing in Kosovo, without going straight at the issue of self-determination, sovereignty, the issues that divide, how do you get people, quite apart from the government, to begin to see each other in a more humane way so that they stop doing these awful things to each other? I guess the insight that has come to me, is that it really comes not through negotiation, or through bargaining, or through the law, but it comes through a moral process, imagining a different, alternative discourse and fomenting an alternative moral dialogue. What the South Africans did was exactly that. Desmond Tutu captured it best when he said, "What we are about is mbutu." In the South African tradition, mbutu is, "we become human only in the context of our social relationships." And in that sense, the model was a much more communitarian model rather than a liberal democratic, retributive model that we've accepted as essential.
Q: You mentioned the common faith of the South Africans as one source of possible reconciliation. It's been used in other cases, Nicaragua among others, not so much the Contras, but I'm thinking of the Nikito Indians and the Sandanistas at the time. What about people who are of a different faiths? Can it still be used as a common ground?
A: I would think that just from my limited understanding of Judaism and Islam as two different faiths, Christianity among the three would be the most demanding of this ethic, Judaism less so and Islam even less so, but even these two faiths, for example, the idea that people matter, that Allah is a loving God, who is a judge, but who is a creator and sustainer of life, and in the case of Judaism the same way. There are some kinds of discourse in the religious traditions which if culled, not in a fundamentalist way, but if you take those principles you can facilitate, I believe, the process of communication, facilitation of this moral discourse. It is more difficult I think if you're dealing with different religions. I tend to see religion, when used properly, as an instrument of healing and reconciliation.
Q: Whatever the denomination?
A: I'll just stick to the three that I'm somewhat familiar with, I don't want to speak about Hinduism or Confucianism or other kinds. At the same time having said that, historically, religions have been a major impediment. The conflict in Northern Ireland has been a conflict between Christians. The Rwanda genocide was a genocide among Christians. That's the empirical reality. What I'm talking about though is that within those traditions there is a moral discourse, which if not manipulated incorrectly could serve as an instrument of healing. I think Desmond Tutu wore his Anglican garb simply to symbolize that he was a man of faith. He was iron-clad on that. Some people asked him not to use it; they wanted to secularize, but he said no. From time to time, Desmond Tutu would pray at the beginning of these truth commission hearings. I think it's testimony to the fact the religion can be a tool for healing and restoration.
Q: So, closing lessons for an ambitious individual who wants to design a program of reconciliation in his/her deeply divided nation?
A: Well, I am coming at this topic not from the approach that you want to master techniques, lists of things that an effective mediator does, or the role of third parties; I'm coming at this topic from the idea that underlying the healing process is a particular discourse, a particular way that you begin to conceive of human communities and the world itself, so that when something bad is happening in Darfur, that somehow because we have a shared humanity, our minds and our spirits are quickened. I think internationally it's true, nationally it's true, locally it's true, and I think the great challenge for people in conflict resolution work, conflict management work, mediation work is to do what they've always done, which is to facilitate communication and bringing pieces together and breaking up complex problems into smaller, more manageable pieces, but at the same time to cultivate the art, the moral art if you wish, the moral imagination required to somehow see beyond just the rational processes of defining issues and to really provide hope. It's the hope and the discourse that maybe can serve as the motor that enables groups and peoples to begin working together in very specific ways. I don't want to sound like an evangelist or a preacher here, who is just philosophizing, I think people really do need to work through the fine print so that people are treated fairly and with dignity. If there is going to be peace in the Middle East, somebody has to think about water, somebody is going to have to think about land rights, somebody has to think about boundaries, somebody has to think about holy sites and all that. If in fact you're going to be able to do that and sustain a humane peace, then you're going to have to have a context, a moral context where leaders and people of good will at the media level, at the level of professions, will learn to talk and treat each other with a certain level of respect and dignity. It's the dehumanization and viewing the other in a different light that really complicates healing.
Q: Okay, if it's possible, and it may not be, and this is my last question then we'll go back to the rest of the events of the day. More concretely -- you've done a lot of comparative work on this topic, South Africa, Chile, Northern Ireland, etc. -- what should a country who is looking to heal itself after a terrible trauma be looking for?
A: I think to the extent possible, the issue of looking back into history so that there is a somewhat general shared account of the past. I don't want to say that a truth commission or truth-telling is always indispensable; if there is a choice between continuing a war and having a truth commission, I think stopping the war is better than no truth commission. In the case of Northern Ireland, I applaud the Good Friday Accord that brought an end to the violence and they established a power sharing-arrangement that hasn't worked out very well, they are doing the best they can and Britain is back, is doing the direct rule again. It's not a very happy situation, but it could be worse. I think you need to take every situation; it's going to be slightly different. I don't think you can expect the Israelis and the Palestinians to do what the South Africans did. If they can achieve a stable peace where they respect each other, I think we have to be realistic here. I'm not giving specifics because I see so many different ways that you can go about doing it. On the issue of Kosovo or Bosnia, I just don't know.
Q: Fair enough, I wouldn't expect you to have all the answers to everything.