Subject: Mary Robinson on ET




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New York - 9 September 2002

Let me turn to the positive experiences of local justice in Sierra Leone and East Timor where my Office has been involved with NGOs in supporting the establishment and functioning of truth and reconciliation commissions. Our efforts were particularly aimed at ensuring that those truth commissions would be authentic responses to domestic needs, would be established by law, comply with fundamental principles of human rights, be independent, and be equipped financially, politically and technically to discharge their mandates.

In both these countries, the commissions are complemented by the efforts of courts to prosecute most serious violations. This balance ensures that there is no impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It also respects the right of nations to learn the truth about past events. Full and effective exercise of the right to the truth is essential if recurrence of violations is to be avoided. In Sierra Leone the Special Court has been established to try the most egregious crimes and it will function in close co-operation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In East Timor the problem is more complex, and quite worrying. The Serious Crimes Court in Dili is working well, but there is widespread anger and frustration at the proceedings of the Ad Hoc Human Rights Court in Jakarta.

Two weeks ago, while visiting East Timor, I was conscious that the whole population is seething about the lack of justice for the worst crimes in 1999, while the UN was preparing for the popular referendum that led to the independence of East Timor. It is hard to have a healing process in such circumstances, and yet I saw it happening. I had the privilege of attending the first community reconciliation meeting of the East Timor Reception Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We travelled to a small village near Liquica outside Dili. Hundreds of locals came, headed by their traditional leaders as well as a regional representative of the Truth Commission. We gathered in a large open air thatched hut. At its centre was an arrangement of coconuts and other symbols to be used in the ceremony. After an introduction by the regional commissioner, three perpetrators of minor crimes during the 1999 violence came forward and confessed. They spoke frankly; freely admitting both guilt and remorse. They were listened to respectfully - of course there were a few heckles but these made even the perpetrators smile. When they finished speaking, villager after villager stood up and addressed the gathering. We listened to a woman whose house they had burned down. Another who had been threatened by them. Remarkably, every speaker urged that they be forgiven and, time and time again, the villagers insisted that these culprits were themselves the victims of a nation-wide campaign of indoctrination and hate.

We left the ceremony while the leaders were considering what symbolic punishment should accompany the act of forgiveness, and so I can not tell you how the ceremony concluded. But during the part of the event which I witnessed, I could sense the relief within the community - it was facing its past and coming to terms with the dark side. There was a palpable feeling that life could now move on.

I tell this story not just to record a remarkable and, for me, emotional, human moment - what is more important is that it is a concrete contemporary story of forgiveness and reconciliation in practice. People can do it. It need not take years. And all our efforts to promote processes of truth and reconciliation are worth the effort.

But Truth and Reconciliation Commissions cannot work in a vacuum. The entire legal and judicial system of countries emerging from conflict often requires rehabilitation to ensure that human rights are protected by law, to be applied by independent and impartial courts and enforced by a professional police. The promotion of the rule of law is therefore a main objective of many of OHCHR technical cooperation programmes.

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