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06.06.2005 Feature Article

A Contrite Nation Learns

A Contrite Nation Learns
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(A GNA Feature) By Benjamin Mensah

Accra, June 6, GNA - The pains were piercing. The scars were deep. The tears were emotional and the narrations chilling. Some could not live long enough to tell their stories for society to appreciate the ills it committed against them. They died both silently and violently, gaping in agony as life ebbed out of them. And when the avenue was opened for them to tell their stories, some of the stories were so grotesque that both narrators and listeners were awestruck.

The adrenalin level of a 76-year old man shot up suddenly as he told his story before a Commission, an audience and the entire nation. He could not relive the pain and humiliation he had suffered 21 years earlier. In three minutes, he collapsed and died. Despite her preamble that depicted her strong belief in God, an old lady went into tantrums as she sat in the witness chair to tell her tale of woe. She was not at the Commission to preach a sermon nor to put up a theatrical performance.

She had become dejected, with deep emotional scars of the inhumane sight of the pulling down of her landed property. In minutes, soldiers had put into ruins the product of many years of toil and sweat of her husband and children.

The angry soldiers accused her of illegally acquiring wealth and in a gangster style, pulled down her building.

Other victims of the human rights abuse spoke with very strained voices. Physical scars had blighted their very bodies. Some limped on others wobbled while others had amputated limbs.

Others had to be taken to special rooms for the Commissioners to examine the scars and disfigurement on their bodies, better talked about than to be exposed to public glare to avoid additional emotional pain.

Such was the history of human rights abuse in unconstitutional regimes in post-independent Ghana. The list is endless, the narrations so harrowing that some decided to tell their sufferings in camera. It was better that the macabre and ghoulish experience they had were rather told in private. Their evidence, apart from being chilling, bordered on national security, would offend morality and jeopardise their own personal security in the estimation of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC).

Such atrocities constituted blight on the national conscience. The nine-member NRC, inaugurated in May 2002, was set up by an Act of Parliament, Act 611, 2002 to seek and promote national reconciliation among the people.

This was to be achieved by recommending appropriate redress for persons, who have suffered any injury, hurt, damage, grievance or have in any other manner been adversely affected by violations and abuses of their human rights arising from activities or in-activities of public institutions and persons holding public office during periods of unconstitutional government and to provide for related matters. The unconstitutional periods named were from February 24 1966 to August 21 1969; January 13 1972 to September 23 1979; and December 31 1981 to January 6 1993.

The Commission, which spent 18 months for its hearings from January 14 2003, to July 13 2004 on application by any person, was also mandated to pursue the object of reconciliation in respect of human rights violation in any other period between March 6 1957 and January 6 1993. The Commission received 4,311 petitions and listed 2,129 for hearing.

Witnesses told stories of killings, torture, beatings, ill treatment, seizure of property, unlawful detentions and constant threats to their lives.

The Commission also heard 79 respondents, who testified in respect of human rights violations charges made against them. Some admitted the allegations made against them and apologised and asked for forgiveness.

The Commission was not established as a court of law, but a fact-finding body, not to victimise anybody but to reconstruct the nation's history and to heal its wounds. One, therefore, wonders if the calls to prosecute alleged perpetrators are valid.

But of what use is an investigation, if it would only offer a blanket apology, some restitution and compensation while the perpetrators walked free, left only to their conscience? What signals would the nation be sending if persons and institutions that perpetrated vicious crimes against humanity in those eras were not brought to book?

Are we passing the entire buck on to the systems then operating? Where was the individual's conscience? Is it not as if to say: "Hurt your fellow human being, and wait for some time to be prodded before you acknowledge the pain you have caused and try to make amends?" How genuine were the apologies that some alleged perpetrators rendered to their victims during the hearings?

There has been much talk about the NRC since it presented the Report on its work to President John Agyekum Kufuor last October. The Report, in five volumes comprise the Executive Summary; Summaries on Petitions and Findings; Reforms Necessary to Make Ghana a Better Place to Live in; Records of Findings of Institutions and Records of Proceedings on a CD ROM.

Lawyer Ayikoi Otoo, Minister of Justice and Attorney General, presenting the Government's White Paper on the NRC Report last April said in line with ensuring that the violations and abuses did not recur, Government had directed that the Ministry of Education should make copies of the NRC report available to both public and private school libraries.

The incorporation of human right education into the country's school curriculum would ensure that the young grew up knowing their rights and developing tolerance for others as well.

Coming from a recent history of gross human rights violation in different parts of the world, there is a growing consensus that education in human rights was essential to social development and has the tendency of building a free democratic society.

Education on human rights is the surest way everyone could acquire wider awareness of universal human rights, abiding respect and tolerance for others.

Over the last decade human rights violations had increasingly assumed a cruel dimension, giving the impression that perpetrators were becoming more brutish and sophisticated.

The United Nations and other agencies continue to make efforts to ensure that the liberties people are enjoying are not trampled upon, yet the abuse of human rights continues in various forms. There was the genocide in Rwanda, amputations in Sierra Leone at the turn of the millennium, the mass killing in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the terror wrecked on poor villagers of the Darfur Region of Western Sudan by the Janjaweed Militia.

Such atrocities make it imperative to inject new strategies into the fight against human rights abuse globally, hence the calls for the institutionalisation of human right education.

Ignorance deepens human rights abuses since the victims were usually unaware of any defences.

Government directives, according to the Attorney - General, that the Ministry of Education should make copies of the NRC report available in both public and private school libraries is welcomed. But, what about the media houses, which right from day one, publicised the work of the Commission? Surprisingly some major media houses, including the state-owned media are yet to have copies of the Report. How can they inform and educate the people well if they did not have copies?

Also would all the five volumes rather than the abridged forms of the Report be given to the libraries? How may people are ready to read, understand and digest a report of five volumes?

For the purpose of the Commission to reveal abuses of the past, heal and rebuild the society, and foster a new democratic political culture, the wide dissemination of the Report is very important. Government and the Ghanaian citizenry must brace themselves up for the education on human rights.

It is only when we all know, understand and appreciate the evils of human rights abuse and its repercussions that we can truly resolve that we would never again plunge our country into the abyss.