Justice and reconciliation can come at high costs

Like Sierra Leone after Charles Taylor
Thursday, June 2, 2016 - 16:55

By Benjamin Duerr

Reconciliation programmes, courts and truth commissions increase societal healing of post-conflict communities, the first study on reconciliation after a civil war shows. However, while the society as a whole is better off, confronting the past worsens depression and trauma of individuals who testify.

After the end of civil wars, many countries have set up truth and reconciliation commissions courts, tribunals, and justice programmes with the intention to rebuild societies and promote forgiveness and stability.

Ten years after the civil war in Sierra Leone ended, a group of international scientists looked at the effects the reconciliation programmes had in the West African country. Before this study, no one knew whether they reached their intended goals, says the study's co-author, Jacobus Cilliers of Georgetown University.

The team conducted interviews with nearly 2,500 persons in 200 villages. At the time of the interviews, 100 villages were taking part in the reconciliation programme of an NGO. The other villages, as a control group, were not.

The researchers recorded each person’s attitude toward their former combatants, their mental health and the strength of their social ties 9 and 31 months after the programme.

Justice Hub spoke to Cilliers after the study was published in May in “Science.” 

Q: What were your main findings?

The study shows both positive and negative results. The positive finding is that forgiveness increased, even towards direct perpetrators. Social networks became stronger in the course of the programme, and there is now more interaction and trust in the communities.

This has a big downside, though. The negative finding is that on an individual level, victims are worse off. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder was 38 percent higher in villages that participated in the reconciliation programme.

Q: To what extent are these findings applicable to other countries or situations?

Of course, every post-conflict situation is different and programmes have different focuses. In Rwanda, for example, the Gacaca courts [after the 1994 genocide] had a strong punitive element while the [post-Apartheid] Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa focused more on forgiveness.

However, all programs have the truth-telling element as a shared component. In this process of talking about the events, people are confronted with war times experiences. Therefore, we would suspect similar results in other situations.

Q: Critics say the research is based on surveys only and does not include, for example, medical examinations.

We developed a list of detailed questions. We asked, for example: how often do you think of the events and the perpetrators of the crimes? The methods we used have been applied by psychiatrists across the globe.

Q: What can policy makers, courts and truth commissions learn?

The results highlight the risk of re-traumatisation of people who are testifying about their war-time experiences. Future design of reconciliation programmes need to incorporate complimentary components that also address the psychological well-being of those who are participating in these programmes.

According to the psychology of PTSD, people are automatically re-living their past trauma. To reduce PTSD, survivors need to confront their past, but on a regular basis in a safe space until the sense of fear and anxiety subsides and they are once again in control of their memories and emotions.

For example, regular therapy sessions in small groups where people get used to talk about their experiences seem to have a positive impact. This could be particularly useful in resource-constrained post-conflict societies.

It's hard to weigh up the positive effects for the community and the negative impact on the individual level. We still believe that forgiveness is an important goal to achieve, but it's important to realise that it comes at costs.

Lead image: Children in Sierra Leone (Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

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