Truth and Reconciliation chair: ‘I hope we can help Seychellois people move forward’
The Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission in Seychelles was set up to provide the public with the opportunity to settle past political divisions and grievances that began with the 1977 coup.
Members of the Commission were sworn in earlier this year with Australian lawyer Gabrielle Louise McIntyre serving as the chairperson.
This month the seven-member commission started registering complaints and grievances from individuals.
SNA met with its chairperson, McIntyre, to talk about the process and the way forward once investigations are completed.
SNA: You have a huge task ahead to help bring about national unity. How confident are you that it is possible for Seychelles?
GM: It is difficult to think you can set up an institution that’s going to bring national unity because national unity really relies upon the leadership of a country wanting to bring people together. There’s been past injustices that have never been addressed and the fact that they haven’t been addressed means that people cannot even begin to come together. So the commission is there to address those past injustices and lay the foundation for national unity.
But national unity will be the responsibility of the national leadership of the Seychelles -- the political leaders, civil society. We have tried to emphasise that from the beginning. These transitional justice institutions have great aims, ideals and objectives, but they are just institutions carrying out a process. They cannot achieve anything unless they are embraced by the national leadership and promoted.
So it’s not just the work of the commission but more broadly, the spirit of cooperation, tolerance, mutual respect -- all of those things are necessary.
SNA: Would you say the commission is a platform that is righting a wrong?
GM: Yes, because a lot of people don’t know what happened. So the commission is to find out the truth on what actually happened. As part of finding out what happened, the commission will no doubt find out what were the motivations that drove people to do certain things.
When people know what happened then it’s easier for them to begin a process of putting that to one side and bring closure. To help them put it to one side, we have the power to make recommendations for compensations or rehabilitation. So I think we can help people individually to bring closure and to reconcile. But whether through that process of helping an individual we can impact on the whole country -- that is where I think we will need the help of national leaders.
SNA: Most of these injustices date back to 40 years ago. So how can a person have closure when you cannot face the perpetrator?
GM: I think sometimes knowing what happened can help a lot. If there is responsibility, not just with the perpetrator but elsewhere, and having that acknowledged and having an apology, this might go a long way.
For example, we have been looking at some of the unlawful detention cases and there was a presidential decree that allowed people to be detained because the president thought they were a security threat. But there was no real basis that we have seen yet. So a recognition that that was wrong will go a long way.
It’s like people haven’t received any recognition that what happened to them was wrong. So just to get that recognition would be a major step forward.
SNA: You have carried out the same processes in other big countries. Seychelles is a small nation. How would the commission ensure that the process is a healing one and not further aggravate the situation?
GM: It is sensitive but our goal is to try and make it a positive experience for everybody. We are not judging people. We are trying to get those that committed crimes and human rights violations to take responsibility for what they did and to apologise for it.
I think it’s quite empowering when you make a mistake to have the courage to take responsibility. Anyone who does that in a sense, they’re free. They are not going to be prosecuted or face any civil proceedings because none of our evidence is admissible in any other proceedings. So I think there is something positive there for them.
For complainants, they have to accept that this is about forgiveness and reconciliation. And that we are not prosecuting people and we are not going after people.
For that, we hope to give them the truth and the ability to have closure and compensation where necessary. We are trying to balance everybody’s interest and needs in this very delicate, sensitive process.
If somebody comes through the door and said I murdered three people, my first question would be would you like to speak to a counsellor because the counsellor is the only person that will not record what you say. Then I will have to tell them what their rights are. Because every person has the right not to incriminate himself. It has to be a decision they’ve made. We are not going to cajole our push them to confide in us. It has to come from them and that’s what we are hoping for.
SNA: So the commission is not punitive?
GM: It is not punitive because we are not judging anybody. We have empathy for everybody that was involved in the process. That’s our approach.
SNA: What will happen with all the evidence that you gather then?
GM: We are going to have a very good filing system so that once our task is completed, we can have a platform where people can easily access the public part of our works.
Some of it may be confidential and that is because some people want their privacy respected. They might feel the process will be harmful to them if we make it all public. If they want to keep it private, we have to respect that. This will happen only if we find that it is not in the interest of justice or they’ll be harmed or the possibility of them reconciling with someone would be disturbed, by making it public.
We have a very strong preference for public hearings but if somebody comes to us obviously distressed then we cannot tell them to appear in a public hearing because we will not be looking after them. We cannot harm people during this process and we cannot force people into situations that are going to make things worse for them.
If they don’t want to go public with their evidence, my next question would be, can we hold a hearing in relation to your case and can the fact of your case, be made public? Also, can these other witnesses be heard in public?
SNA: Won’t this affect the transparency process as some people might see it as hiding information?
GM: Let’s say we have somebody who comes in and says my brother disappeared and I don’t want to talk about this in public. We will take the basic information on what the person knows about the disappearance.
From there, we will find out through the person if anybody else was aware of this incident. Maybe some might agree to speak in public. We can take hearsay evidence so they could tell us the story. We can say the complainant does not wish to put his/her case publicly but we can say what the case is about.
So this witness will speak in relation to that. So we’ll try to get transparency that way without putting somebody who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight under the spotlight.
SNA: The truth, reconciliation and National Committee of the National Assembly has done some work so far and over 300 files were recently handed over to the Commission. What exactly is the process happening right now?
GM: We don’t have the capacity under the Act to just receive these files and start working on them. So we’ve put the message out there that if you’ve made a complaint before the National Assembly committee and you want the commission to take it up, then you must tell us.
The files from the National Assembly were recently handed over to the Commission. (Thomas Meriton) Photo License: CC-BY
So people have been coming in to tell us they want to proceed. We have been locating their files from the National Assembly Committee and we have interviewed them on the particular case. Sometimes the complaint they made in the National Assembly doesn’t give a lot of details so our staff have been taking more details from them to be able to allow the commissioners to make the admissibility determination and see if the complaint falls within the mandate of the commission.
To be inadmissible it has to be manifestly outside the scope of our mandate.
We have people coming in ready to give their sworn statement and we have explained to them that the admissibility determination has not been made yet but they still want to give their sworn statement. So we make sure they are aware of their rights and that they’re also aware of the consequences of giving false or misleading testimony.
We are planning to hold our first hearing September the 9th at National House. So we need to make these now as we need to decide which witnesses we want to call because we need to give people notice and see whether they want to give the testimony in public or closed session.
SNA: The scope of the Commission’s mandate is quite large. How would you decide which case is admissible or not?
GM: Let’s say it’s a case that happened last year where you were arrested and you don’t think there was a good cause for it. How is that related to the coup d’etat of 1977? You will have to convince the commission that it was because over all those years you’ve been targeted because you were somebody who was against the coup. It might look like something that goes to the human rights commission and not us.
The primary period for us is 1977 to 1993 when there was the introduction of the multiparty democracy. We will look at events prior to that day and after that date to satisfy ourselves that it is related to the coup d’etat. So maybe some of these complaints about never being able to get a job in the public service and things like that, maybe they can relate them but that is something we have to be satisfied with.
It is a difficult determination to make but if we determine your case is inadmissible you have fourteen days to ask us to reconsider that decision and to give us additional information.
SNA: Over fifty percent of people who presented their cases to the National Assembly committed opted for compensation. Will the commission be setting a threshold for compensation?
GM: We can recommend compensation under our act. We thought a lot about it. It is difficult because a lot of these violations happened a long time ago and people today may feel they’re not responsible for things that happened in the past and will always have that stance that it wasn’t me and it’s always the taxpayers that end up paying.
We have decided that in the initial stages we are going to take a case by case approach. What is the suffering of the victim and how can we compensate that financially. Is financial compensation what they want or what they need and what is a fair burden to be placed on the taxpayers? So we will try to balance those two.
We are also looking at cases of compensation from the Supreme Court, Land Acquisition cases from the court and the Lands tribunal, to get an idea about compensation. We are looking at what they’re doing too cause we need to be consistent.
We know that a lot of people, in fact, 58 percent of the people before the National Assembly committee wanted compensation, but others want other forms of recognition.
50 percent of the people who presented their cases presented to the National Assembly committee want compensation. (Thomas Meriton) Photo License: CC-BY
SNA: So can a person who has lodged a complaint before the Lands tribunal be allowed to file a similar case before the Commission?
GM: We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them where we have agreed to cooperate on cases and refer cases to each other when we feel it best falls under the other’s mandate.
SNA: Is a person allowed to pursue legal action in court using the file from the Commission once the process is completed?
GM: Nothing before us is admissible in any criminal or civil proceedings. So if you want to pursue something in court after us, none of the evidence before us or anything you found out or anything you could use would be inadmissible. So a person will have to start again from the beginning.
SNA: When you were appointed there was talk that being a foreigner you will not understand the political history, the people and culture and the impact the 1977 coup. What do you think of these comments?
GM: I have to respect people’s opinion. I totally agree that this should be a national event process. But if you look at the Act, I chair meetings so the majority of the commissioners are the national commissioners. I don’t take a single decision without consulting the other commissioners. I am not running my own show. It is very much their show and the national commissioners, in their majority, are the ones that are guarding the work of this commission.
But I can see what I can offer this commission. Because I have a lot of experience in transitional justice mechanisms and in court proceedings, I can see the procedures and rules we need to put in place. I understand the protection of rights and they have very different backgrounds which is very diverse.
This will only work if it’s a national process. It cannot be imposed on you by a foreigner and I know that. I am here to help because I have capacity but it’s their legacy. I am leaving and they’ll be left with the burden of this process. So we’ve got to do it right.
SNA: You have been given three years to complete the process. Do you think it’s enough considering the amount of work that has to be done?
GM: It is a lot of work. We have to function like a machine but a ‘feeling’ machine. So we have standard operating procedures which tell us exactly what we have to do. Having those in place means we save a lot of time.
We’ll assess it in six months and if we see that we’ve done only three cases then we have to relook at our resources. If the country is not willing to give us the resources, we have to reach out to the commonwealth and others to help us get this process moving, because we are committed to seeing this through.
Nobody wants this to drag on forever. It is about closure, bringing people together.
SNA: What is your appeal to Seychellois people?
GM: I hope the Seychelles people embrace this process and come and see what the commission is all about and trust in the commission, trust in its intention.
And the intentions are for everybody. To respect the dignity of everybody - suspects, perpetrators, complainants, victims. To try and help them move forward and feel better about what happened in the past, to let it go and move on. I hope we have a really positive impact on the lives of individuals.