All Things Pass, Except the Past (Alles gaat voorbij, behalve het verleden)

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Author: Luc Huyse
Translator: Julian Ross
Publ: AWEPA. ISBN 978 90 5617 9557
Reviewer: Zubair Kassam

The title of Luc Huyse’s All Things Pass, Except the Past (Alles gaat voorbij, behalve het verleden) is a clear evocation and rejection of the famous proverb, this too shall pass. It also calls to mind the famous adage of George Santayana who said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  The remembering of the past because it is too painful to forget is at the heart of Huyse’s examination of how different countries have attempted to come to terms with the impact that their histories of war and repression have had on their people.  Translated into English by Julian Ross, the work is meant to be a ‘practical field guide [for] communities that find themselves dealing with a past of war and repression’ and is distributed freely to civil society organizations through a grant from the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA). Huyse’s work provides the reader with a basic explanation of the opportunities and challenges presented by the various national and international responses to the abuses of human rights in countries since the end of World War II.

In laying the foundation for his key arguments, Huyse points out that it is often those who are disempowered in society who are most likely to bear the brunt of human rights abuses in times of upheaval.  Women and children are especially at risk given the changing nature of conflict where militia groups and armed gangs not only can gain access to, but also target vulnerable populations.  Women often face a dual threat: not only may they be threatened in times of conflict, they may also face anger and resentment from the men returning from conflict who find that they have become more assertive and independent as a result of bearing much greater responsibility in their absence. For children, distinguishing between victim and victimizer is not always straightforward; in situations where the recruitment of children leads them to being child soldiers, the boundary between these discrete categories becomes blurred. 

Huyse traces the origins of the international movement to protect human rights and punish perpetrators of abuses first to Dunant’s efforts to protect soldiers in times of battle following the terrible events of the Battle of Solferino, which eventually led to the formation of the Red Cross and ‘the first lines of what was to become the bible of humanitarian law’ and second, to the International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg following World War II.  The focus on Nuremburg (and Tokyo) is especially significant as it was a result of these trials that the nation state became answerable to supranational entities and the individual became accountable for his actions.  It was the charter of the Nuremburg Tribunal that provided a legal definition for ‘crimes against humanity’.  For Huyse, these early initiatives and those that followed culminated in the creation of the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court. 

At each step, Huyse examines both the opportunities and challenges of the various approaches, including ‘in-house’ responses, international tribunals such as those in The Hague and Arusha, and blended approaches that incorporate culturally sensitive traditions, meant to promote reconciliation, and legal avenues, including the use of national and international judges, as was the case in Sierra Leone in 2002, following the end of civil war.  Huyse’s analysis is balanced and he is candid about the successes and failures of each approach, noting on several occasions that in addition to the cost and significant investment of time it takes to examine cases, there is also the very real sense that justice is often not served or served too slowly given that it is a ‘step-by-step process’. In outlining the future of the ICC, Huyse is particularly critical of the United States and its ‘nasty campaign against the Court’, which he sees as being part of a larger campaign to attack ‘treaties which threaten the exclusive rights of the Americans’.

Huyse provides the reader with further food for thought through his discussion of the concept of amnesty, ‘a term that covers too many shades of meaning to be usable everywhere and on all occasions’.  His purpose for examining the controversial word is very much connected to the title of his work.   Amnesty has, in some cases, become a mechanism by which violent regimes have sought to escape punishment for their crimes and also a means by which to create “a wall of silence’ where past crimes are never spoken of and perpetrators of violence are never brought to justice.  At the same time, however, Huyse acknowledges that in an increasing number of cases, and under specific conditions, amnesty can assist in a peaceful change in the power structure, preventing even greater bloodshed.  Ultimately, Huyse notes that a blanket amnesty cannot be a permanent solution, but where amnesty is exchanged for information, as was done in South Africa, it may have limited scope.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission becomes a case study for Huyse, both in terms of how the country utilized limited amnesty and came to terms with the history of Apartheid.  Even though the South African model is often held up as one worthy of emulation, Huyse argues that the situation in South Africa following the end of Apartheid was unique. South African civil society was well established, both locally and internationally.  Negotiations took place against a backdrop of strong economic prospects for the country.  The country also benefitted from the goodwill of the international community, in part garnered from charismatic leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who, in particular, chose forgiveness over seeking retribution for 27 years of imprisonment.  These factors do not exist in many post-conflict situations and thus Huyse notes that, ‘transplantation is then doomed to encounter rejection symptoms’. 

In concluding his examination of the South African experience, Huyse stresses that the results are far from conclusive.  A key unresolved issue remains compensation for the victims.  The compensation offered by the Commission thus far accounts for only a fraction of the suffering that took place.   Further, the Commission’s mandate to promote truth and reconciliation are far from fulfilled.  Truth, Huyse notes, ‘appears in innumerable guises, and in as many versions as there are producers and consumers of this mysterious good’.   Thus the truth of what happened to South Africans under Apartheid is neither clear cut nor straightforward and thus Huyse warns countries that set up Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to not expect either a whole truth or a singular truth.  Similarly, many of those who did not receive amnesty for their accounts and who were to be tried for their crimes are yet to be brought to account.  Ultimately, however, Huyse acknowledges that the approach of setting up truth and reconciliation commissions is gaining ground in many countries, including those countries in the developed world. 

Huyse has utilized an interesting narrative structure to organize his book and give it a literary quality.  At the start, Huyse introduces the reader to four ‘protagonists’ who will accompany him during his exploration.  Of the four, one is a fictional character from Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden – Paulina Salas, who is a victim of torture and rape at the hands of a military regime.  The rest are real people: a perpetrator of violence in the case of Gideon Johannes Nieuwoudt, who killed fellow South African journalist, Steve Biko; a victim of violence in the case of Vera M, a Croat, whose family was killed during the siege of Vukovar; and Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, perhaps both a victimizer and victim.  These four figures reappear intermittently and provide a sense of unity and organization to Huyse’s work and ‘show how the confrontation with the heritage of war or of a dictator can go off the rails’. 

The organizational framework allows Huyse to engage the reader by making a complex and difficult subject more approachable.  The work is clearly targeted for laypeople rather than an academic audience.  Huyse acknowledges that there is a great deal of scientific material available to the reader on the topic and that he has not ignored it.  Rather, his desire was ‘to enrich the text with what people actually in the field have put to paper’.  Thus, the reader does not find footnotes at any point in the text.  Some citations are provided, including useful websites, but these are limited and infrequent.  Similarly, the work does not contain an index.  However, at the end of the work, Huyse does provide a commentary in which he identifies relevant publications and websites and discusses his inspiration for the work. 

According to Huyse, the book ‘reads like an account of a personal expedition into largely unexplored territory’.  This is ironic given Huyse’s background.  As Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Sociology of Law at Leuven University in Belgium, Huyse’s writings and research have focused on emerging democracies and retributive justice.  Thus it is clear that Huyse is no stranger to the issues he is discussing and his extensive travels and interviews with individuals and communities affected by war and repression have strongly influenced his desire to create a text that will be useful to them.  The work is a field guide in the sense that it provides contexts within which to understand the reactions of people and communities to war and repression; however, it is not a handbook.  Thus it is encouraging that AWEPA will be using the publication to help build capacity within Africa, as it believes that ‘strong parliaments are essential prerequisites for Africa’s development and that they contribute to peace, stability and prosperity on the continent’.  As one more tool available to people and communities in search of truth and justice, Huyse’s work provides a valuable and informative starting point for those who may only have limited knowledge of the various national and international frameworks that have been developed to provide redress for the abuse of human rights and pasts too painful to forget. 


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