“History,” Winston Churchill is reputed to have told Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during World War II, “is written by the victors.” He might have added that justice is pretty much left in their hands too.
In the last week, news in the United Kingdom has been dominated by the arrest of Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the paramilitary Irish Republican Party (IRA). Adams, now an elected parliamentarian in the Irish Republic, is the architect and linchpin of the Northern Ireland peace process, which in 1998 ended 30 years of violence that killed more than 3,000 people. Adams delivered the gunmen to the negotiating table and his party now jointly governs Northern Ireland.
Adams was arrested by police investigating the kidnapping and murder 40 years ago of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 children, and one of Ireland’s “disappeared.” Adams is accused of involvement in her death and of being in charge of an IRA unit that kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared” 15 other people whom it believed were informers during the blood-soaked troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. To date, the bodies of just nine of the disappeared have been found.
Adams’ brush with the law poses an uncomfortable question, but one that is familiar to the Lebanese: How far should justice for past crimes be pursued if it risks the peace and stability of the present?
His arrest raised fears for the still fragile peace he negotiated. His party indicated that its support for the police, support that has been critical for the peace process, would be “reviewed” if Adams were charged – a decision that is now in the hands of Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service. Oddly enough, the head of public prosecutions, Barra McGrory, used to be Adams’ solicitor – such are the spoils of war. He has said he will delegate the prosecution decision to his deputy.
Lebanon has its own disappeared, of course. The official figure is around 15,000, even if some who have followed the issue believe the figure is lower. These cases have never been properly investigated, and successive governments have failed to lift a finger to elucidate the fate of the disappeared, despite the fact that nearly all those responsible for crimes during the Civil War have benefited from a general amnesty.
Like Northern Ireland, Lebanon’s failure to examine past crimes, indeed current crimes, is partly attributable to the presence in government of many of those involved in the violence.
But in both countries, the resistance also stems from the not unimportant fact that investigating past events is likely to reopen old wounds, cause civil unrest and, in the final analysis, is not going to bring victims back to their loved ones. In Lebanon, the decision earlier this year by the Shura Council finally allowing families of the disappeared access to two separate commissions of inquiry into the fate of their loved ones is progress of a sort. It may shed some light on the fate of many of the disappeared but without a strong nudge from government, it will not provide justice.
Moreover, it is unlikely to offer much solace to the families of those buried in mass graves uncovered after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, including the 30 bodies found near the former Syrian army intelligence headquarters in Anjar. The commission set up to investigate that tragic episode never produced a report.
In Lebanon, even the assassinations of politicians tend to go largely uninvestigated and certainly unpunished. The much-trumpeted Special Tribunal for Lebanon does not appear to be an exception. The dock in The Hague is glaringly empty.
“Collective amnesia” is also on offer in Northern Ireland. People are encouraged to ignore a complex and gruesome past, lest the truth reignite old hostilities and fracture the fragile fault lines of the present. In short, it is better to forget individual crimes for the greater good, to put the interests of the state, its harmony and stability, above those of justice.
The rickety scaffolding that supports this distinctly dodgy argument is that in post-Civil War societies – Lebanon, Northern Ireland and others – there is a straight choice between justice and peace. You cannot have both.
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was ensured immunity from prosecution as part of the country’s transition to democracy. Spain had its “pact of silence” and later, as it moved to its post-Francisco Franco democracy, an amnesty law. And in Argentina, a series of amnesty laws in the late 1980s protected those who committed heinous crimes during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s.
In each of these cases, the denial of justice to victims of former regimes was deemed to be a fair price to pay for peace.
But the argument that justice should not be allowed to undermine peace is a false one. A society where justice is denied, or shelved, cannot in reality have a peace worthy of the name. People are simply asked to suppress what they remember only too well. That doesn’t suggest peace, merely a cease-fire. Better than nothing certainly, but neither stable nor permanent.
Events prove that lack of justice is what really undermines peace and stability, and will do so as long as crimes go unpunished.
When Pinochet died in 2006, he was finally facing trial as public unrest grew at the amnesty in a democratic Chile. Similar pressure saw Argentina’s parliament scrap its amnesty laws 11 years ago and prosecute hundreds of former high-ranking military officials. Meanwhile, Spain remains under pressure to abandon its amnesty, as hundreds of Spaniards turn to the Argentine courts to seek justice for crimes committed during Franco’s rule, causing a big headache for Spain’s government and its courts.
The question we should be asking isn’t whether there is a stark choice between justice and peace in places such as Lebanon and Northern Ireland; but why the political structures in both countries remain too weak to withstand the pursuit of justice.
While meeting Stalin, Churchill also confessed he had helped organize attacks on the Soviet Union after World War I. “I hope you can forgive me,” he joked. Stalin, who once studied for the priesthood, replied: “It is for God to forgive.”
On Earth, we have to be content with justice. It shouldn’t be denied to anyone.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom.