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FORMER VICTIMS OF TYRANNY MUST SEEK TRUTH OF THE PAST

On the hundredth day of his presidency, Nelson Mandela announced that he would send Parliament legislation establishing a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" to deal with human rights abuses of the apartheid era.

Mandela is confronted with the human rights conundrum of the '90s: How the newly liberated deal with the crimes of the past. It is the issue of our time because, from Eastern Europe to Latin America to southern Africa, never have so many peoples emerged so suddenly from tyranny.Now they come face to face with the same dilemma: What to do with the past?

One can talk about war crimes trials, as do many human rights preeners in the context of Serbia or Haiti. But such talk is mostly bluff. (At best, they'll catch a few small fish.)

Mandela is no bluffer. Which is why he spoke not of crimes and tribunals but of truth and reconciliation - borrowing precisely the approach taken by the single most successful new democracy of the decade, Chile.

In 1990, Chile's democratic government took over from a military dictatorship that had come to power in a violent 1973 coup. Several years of murderous repression had followed. The military finally handed over power to a democratically elected government. But it had long before decreed itself an amnesty. What were the democrats to do?

They could not sweep crimes of this magnitude under the rug. Yet they could not seek criminal convictions because abrogating the amnesty would have sparked civil unrest and invited another coup and more suffering.

So they decided, with a principled wisdom admired and emulated all the way to Pretoria, that between absolution and justice lies truth. They decided to pursue, above all, a full and unimpeachable accounting of the past. Hence, by presidential appointment, the "National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation."

The logic of this approach is powerfully elucidated by commission member Jose Zalaquett in his introduction to the English edition of the commission's report (University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

The dilemma, explains Zalaquett, is simple. When you defeat human rights violators in war and pulverize them into unconditional surrender, there is no predicament. You de-Nazify. You hold war crimes trials. You do what you will within the norms of international law.

But what happens when the surrender is only partial? What happens when the losing side gets to participate in the transition to democracy and is still a force in the new society?

In Chile, the old dictatorship gave way, but it still controls the army. In South Africa, the white minority is one-eighth of the population, part of the government, economically dominant and needed for the rebuilding of the country.

Pursuing full justice in these conditions is impossible without risking chaos and bloodshed. So, instead, one seeks the possible and the honorable: truth, the uncompromising uncovering of all that happened.

The Chilean commission investigated in excruciating detail every single "disappearance," every murder, every assassination (including those committed by anti-government guerrillas). It ranged up and down the country taking testimony from thousands of witnesses. The result is a methodical catalog of horrors that takes up most of the 1,000 pages of the report.

The commission was not a tribunal however. It named the victims but not the perpetrators. It did not presume to attribute guilt to individuals.

Why? Because "to name culprits who had not defended themselves and were not obliged to do so would have been the moral equivalent of convicting someone without due process," explains Zalaquett. "This would have been in contradiction with the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule of law and human rights principles."

The release of the truth commission's findings - by Chile's President Patricio Aylwin in a nation-wide TV address - had an electric effect on the country. To the victims, particularly the "disappeared," it gave identity, a resurrection in dignity in the national consciousness. To the victims' families it gave the balm of knowledge and the repose that comes from a final accounting.

But perhaps most important, it gave the country a catharsis. Its findings were unanimously accepted by all parties of all political stripes. Its thousand pages were signed by all eight politically disparate members of the commission without a paragraph of dissent. It leaves no quarter for revisionists. It established a benchmark of consensually acknowledged truth that is a legacy for the future.

Not a complete victory for justice - in such circumstances there could be no such a victory - but triumph enough. And executed with such judiciousness and scruple that the new South Africa, after consulting Zalaquett and other Chileans, has chosen their model to deal with the crimes of the apartheid era.

A wise choice. Mandela has taken as his model people who take the principles of human rights so seriously that they apply them even to themselves. Who know the dangers of fanaticism. Who have made their first duty after liberation not vengeance and retribution but truth and social peace.