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S-4.- Responding to Political Violence: Helping its Victims and Preventing its Return

Organizer and Discussant:

Colvard, Karen
H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, U.S.A.

Symposium Abstract

This session will look at attempts by local and international organizations to respond to political violence and to prevent its recurrence. A South African political psychologist will analyse what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can and cannot do to help South Africans remember the violence of apartheid in a way that helps construct a new, more peaceful society. An American looks at the successes of the international human rights movement in curbing violence by marginal states and its comparative failure to affect the behavior of the U.S. government, and a physician-anthropologist team contrast the activities of local elites and disaster-response agencies treating victims of war in Sri Lanka with local healing and violence-control practices.

S-4.1.-Dealing with the aftermath of political violence in South Africa: Evaluating the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Hamber, B.
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg, South Africa

During the apartheid era, numerous South Africans, particularly within black communities, were severely traumatised as a result of ongoing violence, oppression and political violence. The psychological impact of the atrocities has been exacerbated over an extended period of time by factors such as socio-economic deprivation, continuous trauma, loss and bereavement. In some areas political violence has also been ongoing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1995 and aimed, through a number of mechanisms, to heal the wounds of the past. Over the life of the TRC it has been argued time and time again by its proponents that the discovery of the truth is central to psychological healing. However, in the assessments that the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa has been carrying out for the last four years, it is evident that coming to terms with political violence is infinitely more complex. Thus, the presentation will explore the role the TRC has played in facilitating an individual and collective healing process. The tensions inherent in balancing the individual needs of survivors, the needs of communities that have been destroyed by political violence and the compromises intrinsic to political peace making will be elucidated. The multifaceted interplay between truth, justice and reparations during times of transition will be explored from a victim-centered methodology. The ability of political processes such as truth commissions, commissions of enquiry and tribunals to address the needs of survivors will be critically reviewed. The social and political role of an individualised psychological approach and trauma counselling will also be discussed and evaluated.

S-4.2.- Are human rights the same for citizens of weak and strong nations?

Slattery, B.
H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, USA

The human rights treaties signed and ratified by most countries work essentially to one end: to protect people from repression and violence by the state. They are invoked when a state abuses its people, either by denying them basic rights, or worse, by starving, driving out, torturing, and killing them because of political, ethnic, or religious differences. The treaties have become increasingly a part of international politics, and their implementation has led to the arrests of former heads of state, economic sanctions, and military interventions. But even their successes point out a fundamental problem with human rights law as it is currently practiced: while the treaties rely on some notion of international justice, it takes national strength to enforce those treaties. This means that human rights standards can be imposed by force on smaller, less powerful countries, but larger countries--who have the potential to do much greater damage in the world--can remain exempt from those standards, undermining human rights laws and the ability of those laws to control a state's aggression against its people.

S-4.3.-The treatment and control of violence and the erosion of contexts: Is neuropsychology what Sri Lanka needs?  

Argenti, N.
World Art Studies and Museology, University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.

While the diffusion into the popular media of undigested information on state-of-the-art neurobiological research on aggression has been a major concern for many researchers on aggression, the introduction of neuropsychological views on aggression and trauma in developing countries via much more respected channels has largely been ignored. The paradigms underlying research on the neuropsychological bases of cycles of violence have been introduced in Sri Lanka by mainstream scientists through guest lectures and workshops financed by international humanitarian organizations (such as UNICEF and Oxfam). Sri Lankan intellectuals have readily committed themselves to this modernist approach to violence. Such workshops and conferences provide a much-needed forum where otherwise taboo subjects such as widespread human rights abuses, atrocities, and an ongoing cycle of violence can be addressed. Elites in Colombo have acquired a paradigm by means of which they can discuss violence without having to mention its context: the caste, ethnic origin, or political affiliation of the people involved. While the neurobiology of violence has played a positive role in opening up such a debate close to the centre of a repressive regime, its cultural impact amongst the wider population is potentially dangerous. As a result of this recent cultural input Sri Lankan professionals have implemented (and plan to implement) nationwide treatment programs for violence-prone individuals in rural areas and remote communities. Such programs play a role in the reestablishment of contact between the alienated political elite of a violent nation-state and survivors in rural no-go areas virtually beyond the reach of the Sri Lankan state. As will be discussed in Alex Pillen-Argenti's presentation, rural Sinhala Buddhist communities only manage to interrupt a cycle of violence by means of maintaining a strong tie between a violent event and its context. The imminent large-scale spread of a context-free understanding of violence and aggression to non-Western communities who rely on the preservation of contexts to contain violence should therefore be called into question.

S-4.4.-Indigenous forms of violence control in the rural slums of southern Sri Lanka: The preservation of contexts

Pillen-Argenti, A.
Department of Anthropology, University College, London,  U.K.

In the late nineteen-eighties people in the south of Sri Lanka participated in a gruesome civil war. Neighbors from opposing factions killed one another or denounced one another to death squads deployed by the Sri Lankan state and its Western allies. It is estimated that approximately thirty thousand people disappeared over a period of two years. Poverty-stricken communities in the rural south coming to terms with the social and cultural destabilization this civil war has brought about now provide soldiers for the war against the Tamil minority in the north and east of the country. Many soldiers desert, however, and come back to their villages, only to lead an itinerant life-style, permanently on the move to avoid the regular raids organized by the army. Extremely high levels of suicide (the highest suicide rate in the world for young men) form another aspect of this violent reality. A sociolinguistic analysis of the way in which Sinhala Buddhist villagers talk about violence revealed how they forge strong links between violent events and their contexts. Rather than participating in modernist discourses such as "the war against the Tamil separatists" or "communist insurgents", violence is discussed in relation to very localized feuds and struggles. This culture-specific discourse on violence brings about a social (re)organization of the community into multiple, small-scale bounded social units and contributes to the fact that both the families of victims and the families of perpetrators are able to continue to live together in close-knit neighbourhoods. The cycle of revenge did not include the family members of killers, nor those with the same political convictions as the killers. This containment of violence depends on a contextualization of past violent events brought about by linguistic techniques that restrict accounts of violent events within a bounded social context and prevent them from spilling over into the wider community. Modernist discourses on violence, such as the discourse on "aggressive" or traumatized individuals" (independent from their social context) or the discourse on a general "Tamil enemy" threaten this indigenous discourse on violence which promotes the preservation of contexts and plays a role in limiting the community-wide spread of violence.