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Institute explores justice as part of peace process

San Diego

In a gently delivered yet withering critique, former President Jimmy Carter deplored President Bush’s orders establishing military tribunals for dealing with suspected foreign terrorists. His comments came during a Dec 6-7 conference at the University of San Diego on sustaining peace with justice.

The following day, South African jurist Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, said of Bush’s restrictions on civil liberties, “In Beijing they’re probably popping the champagne corks.”

With those comments as openers, “a small Catholic university with big dreams of making a contribution to world peace” -- to quote its president Alice B. Hayes -- dedicated its new Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

The two-day session with international participants was not aimed at garnering headlines but at exploring ways to insert justice into peace processes.

In quiet rooms beyond media access, international peace negotiators heard key figures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Macedonia and Nepal analyze their country’s progress in efforts to emerge from internal strife or external aggression.

Joyce Neu, executive director of the institute, said the goal of the working sessions was to help provide guidelines to the way ahead, especially to nations just beginning to deal with their problems. Neu, who worked in Kosovo with President Carter on negotiating a ceasefire in Bosnia in 1994, said that countries such as Nepal, faced with an internal Maoist insurrection and the assassination of royal family members -- might benefit from being exposed to the experiences of other nations grappling with similar conflicts.

If there’s a time for off-camera negotiation, there’s also one for speaking out -- and President Carter took it. As a former president who several times publicly lambasted President Clinton, also a Democrat, for his conduct while in office, Carter did not lightly approach criticizing Bush -- though he quipped, “I’m not seeking public office in the future and I do have Secret Service protection.

“I have been commander-in-chief,” Carter said, “I can understand why you don’t want to criticize the incumbent president at a time of crisis like we have, but I think I can point out that we might be partially laying the ground to undo what I think is an inevitable military victory if we subvert the basic principles the United States has always espoused for justice.

“I think the recent order for military tribunals, which I have read very carefully, is a serious mistake,” said Carter, who was a submarine officer. “The Uniform Code of Military Justice, for instance, calls for a public trial. It calls for the right of the accused to have a choice of counsel, to have a conviction based on truth that is believable and without reasonable doubt. It calls for a death sentence only by a unanimous decision of the judges, and it guarantees the right of appeal to a civilian court.”

In the existing Bush order, said the former president, “every one of those principles is missing. We Americans are citizens of an unchallenged superpower. If we continue to expound shortcuts in the administration of justice, there is a global effect set in motion. It is going to be difficult in the future to condemn another country -- China for instance -- which might have a secret military tribunal and convict an American accused of, say, spying. I believe we should send the highest possible signal on human rights.”

South Africa’s Goldstone, war criminals prosecutor at the international tribunal, decried what he described as the U.S. administration’s resort to government “by opinion poll” at home, and endangering “young democracies” worldwide as they watch the United States debase the civil liberties enshrined in its Constitution.

“I can’t help but refer to the suggestion,” he said, “that because two-thirds of the American people support the military tribunals and the profiling of Middle Eastern people that this justifies the invasion of civil liberties.”

The U.S. Constitution, insisted Goldstone, is a threshold that does not shift, and even if the majority of Americans want to cross it, they cannot. “These are your fundamental values enshrined in your Bill of Rights.”

He explained the two-edged sword of ruling by popular opinion -- it depends on what questions are polled. South Africa’s constitution opposes the death penalty and Vice President DeKlerk -- who favored the death penalty -- went behind President Nelson Mandela’s back to argue that it be put to a referendum.

Mandela shot back: “If you want majority rule, I don’t mind, I’ve got a healthy majority. But let’s ask two questions -- the death penalty, and if white citizens should be able to keep the land they’ve acquired in the past 370 years.”

Said Goldstone, “Rule by opinion polls is very popular for the majoritarian, but not for the minorities, the people imperiled by the invasion of fundamental rights. Democracy is a difficult system and a very expensive one, as we’re finding out in South Africa.

“The institutions [that] democracy is required to maintain are costly,” he said. “And when the United States, which is regarded as one of the bastions of democracy, goes back on its own values, it imperils and makes more difficult the ruling of a human rights culture in young democracies.”

The recent presidential orders “can only encourage undemocratic processes in non-democracies,” Goldstone said.

Several of those young or would-be democracies Goldstone referred to were represented at the Kroc Institute gathering. And the meeting closed with reports from four of the key session nations, outlining the complexities not only of negotiating their way out of internal and external military and other conflicts, but of trying to work justice-based democratic systems into the final peaceful resolution.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001