Press Releases

    SG/SM/8152
    6 March 2002

    "OFTEN THE ONLY CHOICE WE CAN MAKE IS THE CHOICE OF
    WHOM WE DISAPPOINT MOST" SECRETARY-GENERAL TELLS
    FIRST ANNUAL MEETING OF DPA FIELD PRESENCES

    NEW YORK, 5 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of talking points suggested by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the first annual meeting of the Department of Political Affairs field presences, at its session on "Reconciling Justice with Forgiveness":

    I am very glad to see so many representatives and envoys here together. To the people of the countries in which you work, you and your staff are the human face of the United Nations. Less visible, perhaps, than peacekeeping operations equipped with troops and tanks -- but you have every bit as much responsibility for helping countries torn by conflict and misrule to recover and find the path of lasting peace and development.

    I'm particularly happy to join you for this session on "justice and forgiveness" -- an issue which, I know, brings you some of your most difficult challenges.

    How do we help a war-torn or newly democratizing country to achieve reconciliation while ensuring that grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law do not go unpunished?

    And how, ultimately, can such a country equip itself with the laws, institutions and other safeguards it needs to stop it from falling back into instability and conflict?

    As you people know better than most, the requirements of what has come to be called "transitional justice" can introduce new and volatile pressures into a society, just when the tensions of conflict and tyranny appeared to have subsided.

    Some surviving victims may be eager to testify against their tormentors, others dread having to relive the horror and humiliation by describing it in public, often years after it happened.

    Some other approaches, which put the emphasis on truth and reconciliation rather than justice, can have the unintended consequence of allowing offenders to avoid answering for their actions, thereby perpetuating the culture of impunity that allowed the atrocities to occur in the first place.

    And there are people -- sometimes but not always those who themselves have most to fear from transitional justice -- who argue that digging into the past simply distracts us from focusing on the future.

    We cannot escape these tensions and dilemmas. Somehow, they have to be managed. What Archbishop Tutu has said about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to me to hold true in general, no matter what specific approach is chosen: "Experience worldwide shows that if you do not deal with a dark past… [and] effectively look the beast in the eye, that beast is not going down quietly. It is going, sure as anything, to come back and haunt you horrendously."

    You have before you an informal paper prepared by the Department of Political Affairs, which covers not only the use of truth commissions but also amnesties, criminal prosecution and other approaches. There is an increasing body of literature on this subject, as well as a growing volume of in-house United Nations experience. So we have much to discuss.

    Let me just suggest a few questions that I'd particularly like to hear your answers to, since I'm not at all sure of my own:

    Timing. At what point in a peace process is it best to initiate steps towards transitional justice? Is it necessarily true that doing so while conflict is still raging jeopardizes the search for peace, because people in power, with whom peace has to be negotiated, are likely to be among those targeted for prosecution? Or is it just as likely that bringing justice into the equation early on in the process will serve as a confidence-building measure, bringing peace that much closer? And -- a more specific question for us in the United Nations -- are there people whom we should consider off-limits as interlocutors in our peacemaking efforts, by virtue of the blood on their hands?

    The role of outsiders. Justice, like peace, cannot be imposed. But how does one ensure that international standards are met where there seems to be little or no national will to do so? Is there a balance to be struck between international standards and local circumstances or sensitivities? How can one guard against token steps, intended more to secure international financial aid than to pursue genuine justice? And what is the proper role of the Security Council in all this? These questions are of course especially topical in the light of the current process in Sierra Leone, and the problems we have had with Cambodia.

    The choice of approaches. Do conflicts based mainly on political or ideological differences require a different method from those in which race, ethnicity or religion plays a larger role? How does one best ensure that the right people, and the right number of people, are brought to justice? Are there principles that can be applied across the board, is each situation so singular that any general rules are bound to be impractical or meaningless? And what happens when aspirations collide with the harsh facts of available funding?

    No doubt you have other questions and concerns of your own. You of all people know well that the United Nations is no stranger to conflicts between the ideal and the possible, or to choices that are not between good and evil but between different imperfections. Indeed, we face such choices every day. Given our limited resources, and the political constraints under which we operate, we cannot help in all the situations we should like to, and often the only choice we can make is the choice of whom we disappoint most.

    However, we must at least aspire to moral clarity, and I hope today's discussion will bring us a bit closer to it. I'm eager to hear your thoughts.

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