Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Justice for All

9.1.00

How do leaders of countries emerging from civil war, political repression, ethnic and religious violence, or economic collapse come to terms with the past and create a viable future?

Harvard's newest University-wide initiative, the Project on Justice in Times of Transition (PJTT), acts as a catalyst for change, bringing leaders from troubled areas like Northern Ireland, Guatemala, South Africa, Bosnia and Herzogovina, and the Gaza Strip together with leaders of other countries that have survived upheaval and moved forward.

PJTT was started in 1992, the brainchild of Timothy Phillips, then a fellow at the Salzburg Seminar studying post-communist transitions in eastern European countries (see "Salzburg Celebration," July-August 1997, page 65). "I was fascinated by the 40-year legacy of repression, and by the questions it raised," Phillips, now a businessman, recalls. "People who had collaborated [with the authorities] were still there. What do you do, prosecute them? Security files showed that some people's friends or family members had reported them. What do you do with those files?"

Convinced that the experience of leaders from Chile and Argentina would be useful to eastern European heads of state, Phillips approached an acquaintance, Wendy Luers, the wife of the former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, who had become friends with Václav Havel. At Havel's urging ("This is exactly what we need," he said, after being inaugurated as president of the Czech Republic), Luers created the Foundation for a Civil Society, a New York-based nonprofit organization that in turn launched PJTT to help post-communist countries make the transition to democracy. The project has raised more than $1.6 million--from foundations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and individuals, including philanthropist George Soros--for 23 conferences and follow-up training workshops.

In the eight-year period before coming to Harvard, PJTT built an impressive record of 19 initiatives involving 10 countries undergoing conflict and change. After focusing first on eastern and central Europe--Hungary, Poland, and Albania--the project soon expanded its scope in response to requests from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. Harvard adopted the program in September 1999 as an interfaculty initiative of the Law School, the Kennedy School of Government, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (under the auspices of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs). Since moving to Cambridge, PJTT has launched four programs, including one in Palestine at the request of President Yasir Arafat.

With an advisory board that includes such world leaders as Oscar Arias, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and Shimon Peres, the project has been able to contribute not only to groundbreaking work in South Africa (where the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission was modeled after Chile's), but to the creation of a conflict-resolution center in El Salvador and to Nicaragua's property-law changes and return of seized property. The project's 1996 Northern Ireland session, which brought together political leaders whose allegiances ranged from Sinn Fein to the Ulster Unionist Party, reportedly helped defuse violence that summer. Says Phillips, "The meetings open up people's minds to think proactively, to take bold steps."

What makes PJTT distinct is its methodology. The approach is "very strategy oriented," says director Sara Zucker. "It's about identifying problems and developing appropriate potential solutions, so that [decision-makers] can craft their own.""We never talk about the generic problems of refugees," says Luers. "We bring the refugee himself--along with the prime minister--to the country where a refugee problem is happening."

A basic project tenet is to invite a spectrum of significant players: ex-prisoners, clerics, business and union leaders, refugees, police, relatives of missing persons, generals, and grassroots organizers, depending on the problem in focus. "We always mix invitees horizontally and vertically," explains Luers, "because any leadership needs all sectors of society if they are going to make lasting change. We bring together people who lived through changes, who had to struggle, to make mistakes and learn lessons, to build new institutions. They are the people who really did it."

Each initiative is a response to requests by leaders in countries facing change. In Hungary in 1992, it was the handling of security files; in Albania in 1994, it was the role of a free press; in Northern Ireland in 1998, it was issues related to women, youth, and political prisoners. A conference in Gaza this June was spurred by Hasan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) representative to the United States, who had been a presenter at the Project's Northern Ireland and Guatemala initiatives. He arranged for Yasir Arafat to meet with Ames professor of law Philip Heymann, PJTT's faculty chair, and other project leaders in Washington, D.C., which led to Arafat's formal request for the Gaza initiative.

Because PJTT provides a neutral, nonpartisan venue, political opponents can talk with each other and start to tackle the toughest kinds of issues. How can you acknowledge the past without allowing bitterness about it to impede forward movement? How do leaders who were once insurgent guerillas build a viable government? How, after decades of corruption, do you establish trust in state institutions? How do you encourage freedom of expression when such expression could oppose your reform efforts? How do you build prosperity that doesn't widen the gap between sectors of society? How do you demilitarize without turning unemployed soldiers and police into thugs?

The team that flew to Gaza included Heymann; the Kennedy School's associate dean for teaching programs, Peter Zimmerman; the project's cofounders, Luers and Phillips; and its director, Zucker. Their role was to moderate, not to lecture, according to Luers. "We don't know what it's like and shouldn't be telling anyone anything," she says. "We are the conveners, the facilitators, the interlocutors, the spark. We bring those who have lived through such experiences together. And we know how to listen."

In Gaza City, several hundred PNA decision-makers--academics, business people, and community activists--talked through strategies to build a governing infrastructure. At this critical juncture, a month before the July summit on Palestine's pending statehood in September, Palestinian leaders--together with 21 foreign leaders whose countries had already coped with such challenges--looked at the need for financial-management systems, economic development, corruption-free institutions, freedom of expression, legal accountability, and training for lawyers, prosecutors, and judges.

The international presenters included Nobel laureate David Trimble (first minister of Northern Ireland), Ana Guadalupe Martinez (former Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional leader and vice president of El Salvador's national assembly), Justice Albie Sachs (South African Constitutional Court), Branka Kasilj (director of the Center for Peace, Non-Violence, and Human Rights in Croatia), Jan Bielecki (former prime minister of Poland), and Samuel del Villar Kretchmar (district attorney of Mexico City). They offered themselves and their countries as case studies. "The Palestinians would say, 'We have it much harder here,'" recalled Heymann, "but the Northern Ireland leaders would respond, 'You don't know how hard it was for us.'" The goal was not to negotiate agreements, but to share relevant strategies.  

PJTT's move to Harvard was the result of a long history of collaboration. The University had cosponsored project initiatives since 1996, when leaders from Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland met at the Kennedy School to discuss ways to protect all citizens. It was an historic moment when Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist leaders sat in the same room and looked at the dynamics of African National Congress and Inkatha parades in South Africa, where such sectarian displays often precipitate violence. "Because the case focused on a specific parade in South Africa," says Phillips, "and not Northern Ireland, the leaders were willing to discuss with each other what happened and why."

At Harvard, the project will be able to expand its reach. "Harvard has extraordinary talent," says Luers. "We now have an entrée to a much larger pool of leading citizens in countries in trouble." The project can now draw on a network of Harvard-trained leaders willing to share their experience with social-political change. Says Luers, "We can call almost anyone around the world."

This fall, as part of its efforts to support Guatemala's implementation of its peace accord, PJTT plans to bring indigenous and ladino women activists from across that country's political spectrum together with women active in government in Israel, Chile, Senegal, and Canada to help strengthen the role of women in politics.

PJTT's contribution to Harvard is its "pragmatic, responsive, real-people dynamism," says Luers. "It was the vision of Neil Rudenstine, [Provost] Harvey Fineberg, and Phil Heymann that this project provide an interface between practitioners and professors." Harvard will benefit as the project documents and publishes its research. "After eight years," says Luers, "we can now identify recurring needs and solutions. Leaders can use these to prepare for--or avoid--crises."

"Harvard's Project on Justice is trusted and welcomed in the middle of the most tragic challenges that people suffer around the world," observes John Biehl del Rio, former Chilean ambassador to the United States and former conference presenter, who is now a member of the project's strategy committee. "Harvard is asked to come when there is still a chance for change. And that is a rare privilege for any organization today."

~ Barbara Beckwith