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Bonny Ibhawoh

A Tshepo Mandela lecture, "Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: Re-Imagining Human Rights in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding"

On the evening of Feb. 13, 2017 the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa held their third event of their Mandela Lecture series on the Brantford campus, co-sponsored by the Criminology Student Association and the Human Rights and Human Diversity Student Association.

The dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Dr. Heidi Northwood introduced the Tshepo Institute, and what the Mandela lecture series stands for. Northwood explained that many people still do not understand the serious challenges faced by Africans today and what is being done locally to combat such challenges. “In other words, it’s important not to stop seeking once one has an understanding of what’s wrong, or unjust, in addition, one can push farther and use this understanding, this diagnosis of what’s wrong to work towards something better and meet something more just. Of course this was exactly what Nelson Mandela stood for,” said Northwood.

The director of the Tshepo Institute, Dr. Akbar Saeed, explained, “At Tshepo what we try to do is shed light on the issues and promote awareness of the issues that are happening in Africa with the aim of inspiring what we call positive transformation. The word positive is very important for us because the founders of Tshepo … Felt there was a lot of negativity surrounding the African continent and we need to promote more of a positive image and talk and shed light on those positive things that are happening.”

Program coordinator of Human Rights and Human Diversity, Dr. Andrew Robinson introduced this lecture’s speaker, Professor Bonny Ibhawoh, who teaches History, as well as Global Human Rights and Peace Studies at McMaster University. Robinson noted that Ibhawoh has published four books with more forthcoming, almost 20 book chapters and over 20 articles in scholarly journals. While Ibhawoh’s research interest was noted as wide-ranging, they include but are not limited to: the relationship of African societies and European courts, the role of human rights in African anti-colonial movements, the role of minority rights in Nigeria, the applicability of international human rights in the African cultural context and public history of human rights. Robinson outlined Ibhawoh’s writing as “very clear, accessible and engaging.”

“I feel like I’m with friends, there’s a homeliness about this campus, it’s cozy you know? A friendly space,” Ibhawoh said in the opening of his lecture. “So I come to you as a friend, and I come to you with my presentation as a reflection.”

Ibhawoh introduced his presentation as issues in the making, many ideas he is still grappling with to date. He was notably honoured to be speaking in memory of Nelson Mandela. “Mandela represents the ultimate aspiration for leadership, for humanity, for students,” Ibhawoh said.

Ibhawoh ventured into his lecture by noting that after 27 years in prison, Mandela began to talk about something that many people did not understand at the time: the idea of truth and reconciliation. Ibhawoh admitted, “many thought the old man had lost his mind. With so much pain, and bitterness in the atrocities that the black population had endured as a minority group for over a century, how can Mandela be talking about reconciliation?”

It is with this introduction that Ibhawoh went on to dispel his ideas regarding truth justice and reconciliation in what he believes is “Re-imaging human rights in post-conflict peacebuilding.”

Ibhawoh begins his lecture at the intersections between human rights, peace building, transitional justice and national reconciliation. His talk reflects on historical tensions, and how to bridge and resolve these tensions between human rights and peacebuilding.

While on the surface, human rights and peacebuilding seem to have much in common, Ibhawoh noted there is a subtle and persistent tension between the two. Peace conflict resolvers are characterized as willing to compromise rights and ignore abuses in order to secure political agreements, and human rights advocates are seen as idealistic and uncompromising in seeking redress for violations even at the cost of prolonging conflict and human suffering.

Between the principles of human rights and the pragmatics of peacebuilding, Ibhawoh believes in certain circumstances, there can be space for truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) to work together beyond these tensions. Ibhawoh defines TRCs as a way in which to uncover the truth about past abuses and provide justice to victims in fostering their national reconciliation.

“And my question today is this, and it is a simple one but I argue, a profound one: how have truth and reconciliation commissions sought to balance the human rights and peacebuilding mandates and show accountability for human rights but also provide a framework for peacebuilding and national reconciliation?”

Following the South African TRC, Ibhawoh explained a new restorative justice model that began to become mainstream in the second half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. TRCs were first an area of justice particular to the developing world and transitioning societies, but despite the west’s classic retributive justice model it had begun to move into what Ibhawoh calls “the age of TRC.”

Noting the TRC of Canada as a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Ibhawoh explained the inspiration from the South African model despite important distinctions between the two. Ibhawoh used the South African TRC as the major framework in his ideas revolving around both the downfalls, and the effectiveness of TRCs as a whole.

Ibhawoh noted that even the United Nations, that is historically inclined to retributive justice, has now acknowledged the restorative justice model as the best way to go in some communities.

“It seems there is a yearning now to deal with so many of the historical developments that have long been taken for granted,” Ibhawoh explained. “So what we have and what we see increasingly, particularly in the transitional justice sector is an emergence of a new, holistic paradigm of transitional justice.” Criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparation programs, gender justice, security systems reform and memorialization projects have been seen throughout this age of imperial reckoning. Ibhawoh explained these are parts of a new found need for a justice system that goes beyond punishment of the perpetrators, and instead works to moves society forward.

But Ibhawoh questioned, “are they useful? Are the necessary? Do they do their job?”

While presenting an idealistic view of TRC Ibhawoh believes they are, however, he notes there are problems. Ibhawoh asks “Whose truth? Whose forgiveness? Is the truth balanced?”
Ibhawoh said that critiques of truth commissions claim the success is predicate on the participation of all relevant partners. But in the case of South Africa, it was thought to be flawed by the fact that many relevant partners refused to partake in the hearings.

Ibhawoh also posed to question what kind of truth these commissions should be portraying: an objective historical truth based on cold facts and factual records, or a more watered down truth that makes everybody happy.
“In dealing with conflicts and wide spread human rights violations countries who have opted for the TRC model continue to grapple with the questions of historical truth,” said Ibhawoh. “They also continue to grapple with trying to balance justice for victims and reconciling victims with perpetrators.” Such as how the Rwandan TRC both put leading perpetrators to trial, while also pursuing traditional reconciliation processes as this retributive paradigm took place.

Bringing us back to the South African TRC, Ibhawoh talked about the unique power of this TRC to grant amnesty to perpetrators that confessed crimes truthfully to the commission. This was said to raise questions of whose justice had been dispensed, and resulted in some victims refusing to forgive perpetrators. Many had argued that this encouraged impunity and did not achieve any form of justice. But later on in his lecture, Ibhawoh noted that only approximately 800 of the over 5,000 applicants were granted amnesty from South Africa’s TRC.

What Ibhawoh argued was wrongly criticized, was Mandela’s appointing of a religious leader that knew very little of the law instead of the typical judicial body used in other TRCs around the world. This was both a strength and a weakness: it created very open, public hearings where people felt free from the technicalities of the judicial process, but then the South African TRC was labeled as a “kleenex commission.” Rather than holding up justice and accountability of human rights violations, some argued the commission had more to do with nation building and feeling good about oneself again.

“Although I acknowledge that the South African TRC had many limitations, I disagree with that notion, on the specific case of South Africa and argue that it has quite valued the human rights language of serving the greater good,” said Ibhawoh.

Since the South African TRC, there has been at least 32 TRCs established in over 20 countries across the world. Because the South African TRC brought such global attention to this form of justice, Ibhawoh believes it deserves a little bit more attention.

The South African TRC was created on the traditional African value system that believes humanity is interconnected; the notion that we are all in this together. Therefore, Ibhawoh argued, this TRC was not formed by any external influence that would push systems of nation building, but the reflection of an indigenous culture.

“My imagination of peace, and human rights is that there can be a happy middle where truth and reconciliation can serve the costs of human rights, and human rights can also serve the costs of reconciliation,” Ibhawoh suggested.

While Ibhawoh acknowledged detaching human rights from the legal foundations of its justice roots risks obscuring accountability and the promotion of rule of law, he sees a way of bridging these two. Ibhawoh argued for a pragmatic peacebuilding approach in which retributive justice and restorative justice work together.

Ibhawoh outlined the great possibilities that came from the creation of the International Criminal Court, which had the potential to balance the principles of human rights and pragmatics of peacebuilding but failed to do so. “For the first few years, it did a wonderful job. But as I speak to you today, the countries of the African union have discussed how African states will withdraw their support from the ICC.”

But Ibhawoh still has faith in an integrative approach, in which peacebuilders should be finding ways of peacebuilding that ultimately promote human right standards, and human rights workers need to realize conflict management skills to communicate effectively the relevance of human rights to the parties in conflict. By collaboratively infusing human rights advocacy with peacebuilding and conflict resolution work, Ibhawoh argued that human rights can function as a broad framework to carry out peace work.

However, Ibhawoh said, “let me make it clear that my argument is not that human rights principles and legal accountability of human rights should take a back seat to impose the national reconciliation of peacebuilding. That is not my argument here, and I feel a strong need to emphasize that.” Ibhawoh recognized that abandoning the traditional retributive justice model is not the way to go, but that TRCs have the ability to integrate both peacebuilding and human rights models.

Ibhawoh concluded in recognizing that sometimes achievement is best through retributive paradigms, and sometimes through restorative justice paradigms, but sometimes, the both work best together.

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