Role of religion in conflict-torn areas explored at NGO experts meeting

UNITED NATIONS — The positive role of faith and religion in healing conflict-torn populations emerged as an important theme here at a recent experts meeting held by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The meeting, “Societies in Transition: The Significance of the International Criminal Court in Peace and Reconciliation,” was sponsored by the Faith and Ethics Caucus of the NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was held at the UN Church Center 11-12 March 2004 and featured talks by prominent NGO leaders, ICC representatives, and UN officials.

Olara Otunna, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, one of two keynote speakers, stressed the importance of the International Criminal Court as a mechanism for accountability, truth-seeking, and healing in cases of extreme conflict — especially those involving children.

He also said that religious groups have a key role to play in healing and reconciliation. He said, for example, that religious leaders and women's groups were among the first actors to denounce rebel atrocities in Sierra Leone.

Further, Mr. Otunna said, faith and religion were often the last resort of innocent people in the face of extreme conflict.

Mr. Otunna described the state of people in the midst of crises in the Congo, Uganda, the Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cambodia. “You live in a harrowing hell, where the earth has opened up beneath you are disappearing in the ground,” he said. “Nobody out there can rescue you from this situation.”

In such cases, Mr. Otunna said, the people have had nowhere to turn but to God. And when stability returns, he said, he found that one of the first things such populations desire is a place to pray and worship.

In a camp in Eritrea , he said, he and other UN officials asked refugees what they most wanted. “Two or three elders stood up and said, ‘The most urgent and important thing for us is we want a mosque.' ”

“They had no food; they had no hospital,” Mr. Otunna said. “All the usual things that we would think of, they didn't have. But their number one request, and with a sense of urgency, was a mosque — and a church for the minority Christian groups. Because they had nowhere to pray.

“You should have then seen the panic in the faces of half of the UN bureaucrats,” he added, to some laughter.

Other speakers stressed the practical role that faith groups can play in helping conflict-torn societies rebuild and reconcile after a ceasefire or peace settlement.

Wanda Hall, outreach adviser of the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, highlighted the necessity of building sustainable relationships between the Prosecutor's office and local communities. Faith groups, along with other sectors of civil society, can provide expert knowledge regarding the social norms of the communities in which investigations take place, allowing bridges of trust to be built between the ICC and the local population, she said. Such trust and understanding is critical for the Court's success in affected communities.

One critical issue facing the Court is the tension between the demands for justice and peace by war-torn societies. In many cases, the fear of prosecution prompts warlords to continue fighting, while blanket amnesty programs offer no justice to victims.

Isaac Flattau, associate legal officer in the ICC Victims Participation and Reparations Unit, said faith groups can provide support to the ICC's restorative justice function.

Faith groups that operate within a country where proceedings take place may partner with the ICC to provide support and assistance to victims as they face traumatic investigation and trial proceedings, said Mr. Flattau. Faith groups outside the conflict area can support victims by mobilizing members to contribute to the historically unprecedented Victims Trust Fund, which has been created to provide reparations and rehabilitation to victims and affected communities, he said.

Commenting on the success of the meeting, Faith and Ethics Caucus Co-chair Jeffery Huffines said the meeting was important for its examination of the whole range of moral and ethical issues facing the ICC as it seeks to balance issues of retributive and restorative justice with reconciliation.

“We see justice and reconciliation not as exclusive goals, but rather two sides of the same coin,” said Mr. Huffines, who is the representative to the United Nations of the Bahá'í community of the United States . “One of the main purposes of the Caucus is to bring together religious groups so that people of faith can work with the Court to assist in healing these traumatized societies.”