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The Mass Media

Truth and Reconciliation: Doing Justice to Justice

Padraig O’Malley, the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation, is facilitating a conference at UMass Boston from October 23 to 25.

Many countries have had civil wars that led people to decide that they have had enough of killing each other. This in turn, often created truth commissions on finding out the source of the issues and trying to make peace among citizens. The McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies’ is hosting a three-day international conference on Oct. 23-25 entitled “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Do They Do Justice to Justice?” which centers around such countries.

Padraig O’Malley, the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation, is facilitating the conference. Attending are panelists from South Africa, El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile, who have had experiences with civil wars, and the process of truth and reconciliation commissions. They will be meeting with representatives from Northern Ireland and Serbia, both countries that are in the beginning stages of such a task.

O’Malley has had experience with bringing people from opposing sides together before; his first major conference dealt with Northern Ireland, where people from every extreme came together in 1975 at UMass Amherst.

“One couldn’t say that much came out of it in terms of progress, except that I learned something: the part that booze plays in reconciliation,” O’Malley said. “If you get people who have bad hangovers, three or four days in a row because they’ve been up all night drinking and talking, by the fourth day, everyone is looking for a Valium.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Protestant or a Catholic, if you share that Valium that man, that woman is your friend for life. That kind of thing, people bond. Part of all conflict is how we order other human beings. We don’t see them as the same kind of human beings as ourselves. We view them as being inferior, or this, or that, or the other. You have a hangover, the other person has a hangover, you realize, ‘gee, we have something in common.'”

He wrote a number of books on Northern Ireland and has held several conferences dealing with truth and reconciliation. Most recently he and colleagues from the Institute of Global Leadership at Tufts University were in Helsinki, Iceland, where top-negotiating teams from Northern Ireland and South Africa got together with 16 Sunni and Shia who are also beginning this process.

“In one sentence, my philosophy is simple,” O’Malley said. “People from divided societies are the best kind of people to help people from other divided societies, because they think the kind of same way, they have the same way that they view the world…So when they start sharing with each other, even cross-culturally, they identify with what each other are saying, so they can start exploring the ways that people who are still in conflict act, and those in conflict don’t feel like they are having something imposed on them from an outsider.”

This sort of bonding and togetherness can make change happen, he said. The bonding will allow the process of the commissions to begin.

“The absence of violence is not peace. Free and fair elections are not democracy. You have to move the path from a transition where you have groups of people who either were killing each other or despised each other or hated each other, who now have reached a political settlement. You must now take that political settlement and translate it into something that will heal the wounds of the past and the damage that these people from all groups have inflicted on each other. Every group in a divided society accumulates its losses-fathers, sons, daughters-that were killed by the other side and government militias, where people just disappear overnight. All of these things have to be addressed in some way, so that the victims feel that justice is being done for the losses they have undergone.”

The major themes of the conference are focusing on the process that established the truth commissions, what their goals were, how successful they were, what should be done differently and whether justice was served by the reconciliation process in the country sharing their experience.

“We hope that they can go back, having worked out with people from [the core countries], with a set of indispensable elements that have to be part of any truth-seeking process,” O’Malley said. “If you want to bring about peace, it’s not just finding the truth, but wanting to translate that truth into an instrument of reconciliation.”

The conference is being held on two levels-private sessions and public sessions. The private sessions will involve Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile and South Africa, the “core countries,” sharing their experiences with Northern Ireland and Serbia. The public sessions will target the South African experience on Oct. 23, the Latin American experience on Oct. 24 and a lecture on answering the conference’s question, “Do truth commissions do justice to justice?”

Students can observe the private sessions, and take part in the public lecture on the conference’s topic. Also, they are looking for volunteers to assist the representatives from the other countries and help them feel comfortable and welcome on campus.

To RSVP the event, call the McCormack Graduate School at 617-287-5550. Students interested in volunteering should call Patricia Peterson at 617-287-5535.

John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and ReconciliationPadraig O’Malley’s title, John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation, was named after the late congressman, Joe Moakley, who, in the late 1980’s was instrumental in uncovering the people who murdered six Jesuits in El Salvador.

“I knew Joe since I worked on his first election campaign two years after I arrived in Boston,” O’Malley said. “That was the first political campaign I had ever worked in my life, and it was an intense congressional race. […] When the position was created at UMass Boston, he said that I was the one he wanted for it, and now I’m running around all over the world.”