Jermaine McCalpin | No truth, no trust!
I am encouraged that discussions of a truth commission for Jamaica have been placed back on the national agenda.
The title of this article is also the title of research conducted by this author in collaboration with the Truth and Justice Action Group (a confederation of members from academia, the Church and civic organisations) of the Jamaica Council of Churches. It aimed to explore the support and likelihood of truth -telling mechanisms (truth commissions, commissions of enquiry) strengthening democracy and governance in Jamaica.
The research was sponsored by the UNDP in Jamaica and was commissioned in the immediate aftermath of the May 2010 West Kingston operation. Research was conducted between January and May 2011.
The research found, among other things, that there was/is high level of support for a truth commission. However, the primary problem is that many who supported the idea of a truth commission did not understand the real aim of truth commissions. Many spoke of it in thinking it was a "grand political confessional" where politicians, perhaps somewhere like at Emancipation Park, would confess their sins to the country.
While it seems to be captivating imagery to see 'the untouchables' confess to their sins, a Jamaican truth commission cannot just focus on confession, certainly not only of politicians. We often focus on the moral culpability of 'corrupt politicians' without looking at the larger complicity of many others.
It is commendable that a politician, in this case, the leader of the Opposition, Dr Peter Phillips, would call for a truth commission for Jamaica. The Gleaner's editorial of Monday, December 11, 2017, states that civil society called for a truth commission over two decades ago. More accurately, a truth commission has been called for by sections of civil society for more than two decades (certainly since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1995).
Let me categorically state that while politicians have a lot to account for, they are not the only ones. While they must take responsibility as architects of many of Jamaica's current problems, many others have been the guardians and upholders of such an oppressive and violent system. A political confessional must be accompanied by social, economic, moral and spiritual accountability. Truth-telling must be wider than just politicians; it extends to all of us.
While the operation in West Kingston and its subsequent commissions of enquiry have resurrected calls for truth commissions, it is important to note that these calls never died. Many civil-society groups such as the Jamaica Council of Churches, and individuals including this author, Dr Henley Morgan and countless others have been calling for one.
Rev Al Miller and a group of church leaders, from as early as 1996, sketched a proposal for a truth commission. This is not to suggest that those who call for one are somehow immune from the need for truth-telling.
Almost two weeks ago, Prime Minister Andrew Holness apologised for actions taken by the then Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)-led Government in Tivoli Gardens in May 2010, and although he was not prime minister at the time, he was a member of the Cabinet that would have been privy to information on the proposed operation.
An apology is welcome, but what exactly is it being tendered for? The real issue is that confession (saying sorry) will never be enough unless concrete measures of reparation, redress and reconciliation are instituted. I am aware that compensation has been granted for individuals and families for the West Kingston operation and the violation of their human rights. However, what next?
Political apologies and their sincerity must be judged not on who tenders them, but why they were tendered now, and what concrete steps of atonement and repair are to being made.
I believe a critical juncture was squandered in the immediate months or years following the Tivoli operation. Truth commissions are often established at some point of potential transition. Jamaica was on the cusp of a political transition immediately following May 2010. However, in the wake of 2010, Jamaica has swung back to the 'normality' of politics as tribalised and divisive, without being transparent and transformative.
I offer to you the unequivocal truth that politicians cannot conveniently call for, or lead, any substantive truth commission efforts in Jamaica or elsewhere. The founding of the South African TRC, which is the model most of us have heard of, was unique in its establishment. From the more than 50 truth commissions since 1974, one lesson has been clear: Even if they are signed into law by politicians, they are best initiated and legitimised by civil society.
The success, however, of any truth commission must have the support and partnership of major political parties, the private sector, and civil society. Those who call for such a mechanism have to be mindful of two things: Be careful what you call for; the truth often goes deeper than we desire, and that the call for truth and a truth commission must not be as a result of amnesia or myopia, focusing only on the sins of others.
Both political parties have partnered in a nefarious alliance since adult suffrage and have given us the crumbs from the table of the privileged while promising the oxtail and curry goat of prosperity and progress and so many other Ps. I personally welcome any sincere discussions on a Jamaican truth commission and am willing to offer my expertise on any such process for Jamaica.
However, like marriage I offer the reality that any advocacy for a truth commission "should not be entered into unadvisedly".
The research I conducted six years ago also sought to answer what would be a useful starting point for a Jamaican truth commission. We interviewed more than 100 persons in focus groups and expert interviews across the island. The answers were varied, but most seemed to explicitly focus on politics.
Some felt a Jamaican truth commission could back to 1492 and Columbus, others 1834 and why no reparation was given to the formerly enslaved, others still, 1962 and Independence. Most popular was the suggested starting point of the polarisation in the 1970s, with the descent into political violence. A few suggested the Green Bay killings, and several others wanted to focus on the culmination of political violence leading up to the October 1980 general election.
Twenty-seven per cent felt that a truth commission would need to address political tribalism and the creation of garrisons; 26 per cent, corruption; 14 per cent, extra-judicial killings; four per cent for Coral Gardens and May 2010, respectively. The research also asked what was the major issue affecting Jamaica (2011): 26 per cent said crime and violence; 14 per cent said corruption; 12 per cent, lack of trust; and 10 per cent said injustice.
Forty per cent of the research's respondents argued that a truth commission would have a positive effect on democracy, ranging from 'it would strengthen democracy', 'build trust', to 'increase accountability' and 'make a fresh start for Jamaica'. I would hazard a guess to say that many persons still feel the same way; however, there are some important preliminary steps before we get to an establishment of a truth commission.
The research provided five major recommendations - conduct a larger study on a Jamaican truth commission to explore its feasibility, intense national and community consultation, and sensitisation on the importance of truth-telling mechanisms to democracy, strengthen existing public accountability mechanisms, and more explicit advocacy by civil-society organisations in holding public officials accountable.
Importantly, key considerations when thinking about establishing a truth commission are critical to a truth commission's success. Who will establish the truth commission? Who will serve on the commission? How will the public be consulted in all areas of the process? How will it be funded? What are the expected/desired outcomes of the process? The terms of reference? What are the possible consequences if the mechanism fails, and, finally, who will be responsible for implementing the findings of the commission?
Several years ago, environmentalist and social commentator Peter Espeut argued that a truth commission would be like a "national wash-out". It would be a "purging of the nation's toxic gastrointestinal tract" (my words). However, after the wash-out, Jamaica will need something to "build back" its energy. This is why I believe truth must lead to justice. If truth is the "wash-out", justice is the "Supligen" Jamaica needs.
In essence, a truth commission is a great desideratum, but I end with two examples of the power of truth. In the exchange of Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup and Tom Cruise as Lt Kaffee in 'A Few Good Men', Jessup asks, "You want answers?" to which Kaffee opines, "I want the truth."
Jessup famously replies, "You cannot handle the truth!" This is the real issue - that the truth we clamour for, we must be prepared to deal with it. All truths and truth-telling have consequences. The words of Jesus in John 8:32 ring, well, true - "for you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free".
We must relate the truth of whatever truth we are seeking to justice. It is, after all, the spirit of the line of our national anthem, "justice, truth be ours forever".
- Dr Jermaine McCalpin is an expert on truth commissions and has studied more than 20 of them, writing on the South African, Haitian and Grenadian editions. He is assistant professor and director of the African and African-American Studies programme at New Jersey City University.
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