TRRC: Putting Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Perspective

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By Baba Galleh Jallow
In addition to competing narratives, another interesting conundrum the TRRC is constantly faced with is a series of interrelated demands made by some segments of Gambian society. All too often, demands like truth before reconciliation, justice before reconciliation, or truth and justice before reconciliation are made on Gambian media circles. The absolute terms in which these demands are tabled before the TRRC in the public domain suggest a linear process where one thing must happen before another can, and that we must have truth and justice before any talk of reconciliation. Truth, justice and reconciliation are rendered mutually exclusive and isolated occurrences that must happen one after another. Yet, as we hope to demonstrate below, a good measure of truth has been generated by the TRRC and reconciliation cannot wait for justice because justice as criminal prosecutions can only happen after the TRRC submits its recommendations and ceases to exist.
There is no denying the fact that a lot of the truth about human rights violations that happened in The Gambian between July 1994 and January 2017 has been unveiled through the TRRC’s public hearings. A good measure of the truth about circumstances and specific details surrounding the July 22, 1994 coup and the arrests, detentions and tortures of former PPP ministers has been unveiled. Similarly, a lot of hitherto unknown truths about the November 11th incident, including the burial site of at least seven of the victims, have been uncovered by the TRRC. Ditto truths about the January 1995 arrests and detentions of Sadibou Haidara and Sanna Sabally, the June 1995 murder of Ousman Koro Ceesay, and the 1996 Denton Bridge incident involving UDP supporters and security forces. Also, we now know truths about the painful experiences of Gambian media and journalists, including the murder of Deyda Hydara that we did not know before the TRRC. Truths such as how Deyda was put under surveillance, closely monitored, followed, and shot dead by agents of the state from a speeding car are now public knowledge. We now even know who pulled the trigger. Truths about the activities of the Junglers and what happened to people like Ndure Cham, Haruna and Marcie Jammeh, and the 56 West African nationals, among others have also been revealed by the Junglers themselves. More recently, the TRRC has uncovered hitherto unknown truths about the experiences of the survivors of the April 10 and 11, 2000 student demonstrations, and the victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violations.
Taken together, the 114 witness testimonies Gambians have heard so far reveal several truths about a regime under which due process and the rule of law were key casualties. Thanks to the confessions of perpetrators and the harrowing stories of victims, there is no denying the truth that during the period under review, Gambians were arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, sexually abused, and often extra judicially executed. There is no denying the truth emerging from witness testimonies that such fundamental rights as the right to be charged or arraigned before a court of law were unlawfully denied Gambians and that once under detention, victims were subjected to some of the cruelest forms of inhumane treatment mostly by their fellow Gambians. Along the same lines, through the TRRC hearings Gambians now see the damaging extent to which political power and office were personalized in this country.
In the light of all of the above, we can clearly see that calls for truth before reconciliation are a bit too unfair. Of course, some who make this demand are perhaps referring to individual truths that must be told before victim – perpetrator reconciliation can take place. And that is a perfectly legitimate demand. Although some victims may choose to reconcile with their tormentors even if their tormentors do not speak the whole truth, it is reasonable to expect that most victims will never consider reconciling with a perpetrator as long as the perpetrator refuses to tell them the specific truths they need to have healing and closure. And that is a perfectly legitimate position to take. What is problematic is that some who demand truth before reconciliation render their statements in such categorical terms as to suggest that the TRRC must not carry out any reconciliation work at all until the truth is known. But exactly what truth remains rather vague in this formulation, because as we can see above, a lot of very important truths have already been revealed through the TRRC’s public hearings.
Equally problematic is the justice before reconciliation or no reconciliation without justice demand. This demand too, is rendered in absolute terms that suggest a strictly linear process in which justice must happen before reconciliation. It is clear that those who make this demand understand or choose to understand justice mainly as the criminal prosecution of both alleged and confessed perpetrators. For this reason, some elements of procedural justice (of which criminal prosecution is a part) and other forms of justice such as social justice, poetic justice, and restorative justice (among others) happening within the TRRC process are ignored by those who demand that we must have justice before reconciliation.
In a very real sense, the public hearings of the TRRC engender certain forms of social justice. The fact that victims have a public platform to confront their individual tormentors or the state, name and shame alleged perpetrators and perpetrators, freely tell their stories, express their outrage and demand accountability feeds into the wider Gambian social justice discourse that currently animates the public space. The TRRC has generated a conversation on who we are as a people, what should be the right relations between state and society, and between the individual and the state, why human rights violations of such magnitude could happen in this country, and how we can best prevent a recurrence of such violations or the emergence of dictatorship in The Gambia. Equally important, both the Commission’s public hearings and outreach activities have generated serious conversations around social justice issues like gender, power relations, public service and social status in Gambian society. Social justice as a concept of truthfulness and fairness in the conduct of public affairs is thus very much a part of our transitional justice process, thanks in no small measure to the work of the TRRC.
And then there is poetic justice. True, the great majority of perpetrators and alleged perpetrators are yet to be arrested and charged with criminal offenses because in the context of the TRRC’s mandate, that can only happen after the Commission submits its recommendations to the government. That takes nothing away from the fact that alleged perpetrators and perpetrators are being called upon to render public accounts of their involvement in human rights violations. Hopefully no one imagines that sitting on the witness chair, in front of television cameras, and before both national and international audiences and being asked to come clean on your part in the unlawful arrests, detentions, torture and killings of your fellow Gambians is an easy thing for the perpetrators. Yes, some may be economical with the truth and some may utter outright lies and denials of culpability. But all perpetrators are nevertheless alive to the fact that the entire country and especially their spouses, their children, their loved ones and their friends and relatives are all watching and listening. That experience is probably not as bad as spending years in prison, but it is nevertheless painful and humiliating, thus representing a form of poetic justice, defined as “the fact of experiencing a fitting or deserved retribution for one’s actions” or in more cultural terms, suffering the bitter fruits of bad karma under the full glare of public scrutiny. Moreover, there is no doubt that their spouses, children, relatives and in some cases parents also suffer a great deal of pain and humiliation both during and after perpetrators’ and alleged perpetrators’ testimonies.
And then there is the fact of restorative justice which, within the context of the TRRC is happening in the form of ongoing support and interim reparations to victims, or reparative justice, defined as “measures that seek to repair, in some way, the harm done to victims as a result of human rights violations done to them.” So far, at least 40 victims have been benefitting from both the services of the Medical Board set up in November 2018 at the TRRC’s request, as well as from psychosocial and other forms of support rendered through the Commission’s interim reparations program. To illustrate, nine victims from the April 2000 and April / May 2016 incidents are currently being considered for overseas medical treatment. The TRRC obtained passports for eight of these victims who did not possess them to facilitate their travel. This is in addition to the fact that at least three young victims are now benefitting from full scholarships to pursue their education. Three victims, including the head of our Victim Support Unit and two survivors of the April 10 / 11, 2000 student demonstrations are employed full time at the TRRC. The daughter of one victim has been provided free space at the TRRC headquarters from where she runs a canteen providing meals, drinks and other catering services for Commissioners, staff and visitors to the Commission. These are just some of the ways in which restorative justice is happening as a result of the TRRC’s work.
In essence then, the justice before reconciliation demand tends to reduce the entire TRRC process to the occurrence of retributive justice, the criminal prosecution of perpetrators and alleged perpetrators. Yet, as is evident from the Commission’s various victim support and outreach activities, recommendations for criminal prosecutions are only one aspect of the Commission’s work, however important. Moreover, criminal prosecution of alleged perpetrators and confessed perpetrators can only happen after all the evidence has been gathered and analyzed and recommendations submitted to the government. And therein lies the problem with the justice before reconciliation demand. By the time retributive justice is meted out to perpetrators, the TRRC would have wrapped up its work and ceased to exist as an institution. Entertaining the justice before reconciliation demand would therefore mean that the Commission must entirely ignore and fail to execute the reconciliation aspect of its mandate. Such an eventuality is, of course, inconceivable; and so the TRRC can only assure those who make this demand that the Commission will, at the end of its work, submit recommendations for the prosecution of those considered most responsible for the human rights violations that occurred in this country during its mandate period.
In conclusion, it is fair to suggest that the TRRC has indeed revealed quite a number of important and hitherto unknown truths through its public hearings. There is also ample evidence that certain forms of justice are happening within the process, especially poetic and restorative / reparative justice, and that realistically, justice as criminal prosecutions can only happen after the end of the TRRC mandate and cannot therefore warrant the suspension of the Commission’s work on reconciliation.