Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Paul Van Zyl: Why America needs a TRC

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Paul Van Zyl was an anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa. When Mandela became president, he became the executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he’s now co-founder and EVP of the International Center for Transitional Justice. He explains that in the four years from Mandela’s release from prison to free elections, an enormous amount of work had to be done. South Africa needed a new constitution, a shared parliament, and, controversially, amnesty for security forces.

Mandela decided that it wouldn’t be possible to end the conflict without such amnesty. But if ordinary people feel their interests are neglected, a peace deal will unravel. And amnesty deals are never popular with torture victims or families of the disappeared.


Paul Van Zyl photo by Kris Krg

“I supported transition to democratic rule. But I was determined that it would not happen at the expense of victims. If murderers were able to get away with murder, we needed to address the needs of the victims.”

The South African TRC required perpetrators to confes crimes in public, and be cross-examined by the victims. Only if they did so in public would they receive amnesty. There was an element of shaming, the important acknowledgement of the injustices. And critically, it allowed victims to discover the truth about their loved ones.

The public testimony continued almost non-stop for 3 years, dominating the newspapers and nightly television news. It was impossible to ignore. And it started South Africa reimagining itself.

He tells the story of Joyce Ntenkuda and her son Sipiwe (apologies if I have the names wrong. Please use comments to correct.) Sipiwe was a youth organizer, and was detained under apartheir law without trial and without a lawyer. He went into detention “robust and articulate, and came out unable to walk or talk, and almost without hair.” Doctors discovered that he had been poisoned with Thallium while in custody. He began healing from the poisoning, but one day when his mother came to see him in the hospital, he was gone.

Joyce told the commission, “Every time the phone rings, every time I hear the knock on the door, I think Sipiwe is back. But I know in my heart, my son is dead.” She held up a ball of Sipiwe’s hair and told the commission: “This is all I have left of my son. You need to tell me what you did with my son.”

She got an answer from the security forces. They had conspired to have him killed to prevent the lawsuit that would have arisen from his testimony against the security forces. They took him from the hospital, shot him in his head, burned him on a pyre, and dumped the ashes in the river. “We couldn’t bring him back, but we could finally give him a decent burial with his mother there.”

He shows us a brief video from the TRC. An older man, Ernst Machaus, describes the torture he survived. He – and Desmond Tutu, chairing the TRC – are reduced to tears.

Michael Ignatieff quipped, “Truth commissions never recover the truth – they just narrow the range of permissable lies.” In South Africa, most white political leaders try to run from these crimes. People like deKlerk termed them as acts of bad apples, not the results of policy decisions. “But the mountains of evidence reveal that DeKlerk’s account was an impermissable lie.” The brutality was too widespread, too systematic to be anything other than government policy.”

Truth and reconciliation commissions help us move from knowledge to acknowledgement. It’s one thing to know that crimes occured, and something else to acknowledge they were wrongful and agree never to do them again. White South Africans benefitted from Apartheid, and turned their eyes from the crimes of the regime. As one black activist told him, “Whites wanted to eat roast lamb every night, but never wanted to see the blood and guts.” The TRC forced white South Africab to “demolish the wall of denial between their prosperity and crimes committed in their names.”

This, however, is a talk about the US. Van Zyl asks us to consider the national debate about torture in the war on terror. He admits he’s an outsider, but he’s got an interest in the topic. “I have two sons born in Brooklyn, who have American passports. This torture was done in their names.”

“There’s something medieval, shameful, criminal about torture.” As such, most political leaders have developed systems of coded instructions that allow them plausible deniability. Van Zyl tells us that he’s come to believe that you never have to issue written instructions – you simply need to create the following conditions:

- deny habeus corpus
- dehumanize the detainees, portray them as extremist fanatics
- place interrogators under enormous pressure to get information fast
- ensure no one is held accountable. If there is accountability, blame a few bad apples.

These conditions apply in a few dictatorships… and in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. What’s remarkable is that US officials issued written instructions to authorize torture by stripping legal protections and by defining torture out of existence.

The former vice President admitted to authorizing waterboarding and other torture. Leaders like PW Botha and others were known to condone torture. But Cheney has sought to justify torture as legal and moral. “Dick Cheney has defended torture in ways that would make dictators blush.”

Far more troubling, he’s argued that waterboarding and torture are justifiable and those who oppose them are putting America at risk. Imagine if every country that believes they’re facing existential threat engaged in this behavior. “All the human rights progress we’ve made since WWII would be erased in the face of the war on terror.”

Obama was right to ban torture and seek a solution to Guantanamo. But, disturbingly, Obama’s ban doesn’t appear to have unwavering support, and another terrorist attack could lead to restoration of the old policy.

“So American needs a truth commission – a proper reckoning of this dark chapter in our recent past. A new America must confront this dark chapter openly and publicly.” We need to hear first-hand, unvarnished accounts of the crimes committed in our name. Only then can we say that we will never justify and condone torture and never do this again.

But the national mood sounds more like this: “We’re a nation that used to torture. We don’t do it anymore.” We won’t investigate or prosecute for fear that it will be divisive, and we can’t say for sure that we won’t torture again.

Van Zyl says, “this ational ambivilence that worries me most.” It feels like this opposition could fall with the spectre of a ticking US bomb in a US city. It shouldn’t.

- Torture is unreliable, and doesn’t reveal as much information as traditional interrogation. “Don’t take my word for it, ask the FBI.”

- Evidence extracted by torture can’t be used in civilized legal systems. One of the problems with prosecuting Guantanamo detainees who may be guilty is that evidence was revealed under torture.

- Torture gives a rallying point and a defense for bad people.

- When do you stop? Do you torture to prevent a murder? A rape? Arson? A suspected pedophile?

“Torture infects law enforcement and the criminal justice system – the country’s legal and moral foundation begins to crumble.” It makes justice systems too lazy to find and stop terror plots through investigation and intelligence.

To close, he quotes Karl Jaspers, writing about German guilt about the holocaust. There is metaphysical guilt, guilt we feel when we fail to protect persecution of others. This guilt is an abstract concept can be the difference between life and death. It’s a form of enlightened self-interest, Van Zyl tells us. “We need repudiation of torture not just because it’s wrong, but because once you’ve opened the Pandora’s box, the violence and degradation are seldom confined to your enemies alone.”

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