ICTJ Forum Series on Truth Commissions and Peace Mediation: Jean Arnault



In this episode of the podcast series, we speak with Mr. Jean Arnault, former special representative of the secretary general for Guatemala, and head of the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala from 1997 to 2000. He was also an observer and mediator in the Guatemalan peace negotiations and served as senior political affairs officer in Afghanistan, Namibia, and Western Sahara.

In this interview with ICTJ’s Hannah Dunphy, Mr. Arnault explains the unique role of peace mediators, looks back at the shortcomings of the peace process in Guatemala, and explains why truth-seeking and peace agreements must respond to the needs of a society.

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Arnault asserts that the political polarization, discrimination and societal tensions faced today in Guatemala are deeply connected to the country’s UN-brokered peace process which ended the 36-year internal armed conflict in 1996.

“If I look now at Guatemala, 20 years later, there’s no question in my view that somehow a big space was left empty. And that’s the space of national reconciliation.”

When asked what he would have done differently, he stresses that neither the truth commission nor subsequent measures have really addressed the problem of polarization.

“If you arrive in Guatemala today, one thing that will certainly strike you is the fact that […] polarization—rather than decreasing—has maybe even increased, compared to where we were around the final years of the peace process. And I think the responsibility for that polarization partly rests with the fact that, frankly, the negotiators—including yours truly—never really thought that this was a subject.”

Reflecting on truth-seeking during his twenty years of international experience as a peace mediator, Arnault says he’s learned that strong national demand for the truth is essential to the success of a truth commission, as it reflects a general need for transitional mechanisms to respond to the needs of a society, including the basic necessities of daily life.

“I’m deeply, deeply convinced that if I look at most peace processes 20 years later, they have secure peace in most cases, fairly stable in many cases. But one thing that most of these processes have not delivered is socioeconomic peace dividends.”

Arnault warns that after a transition, the consequences of this failure can threaten the very foundations of peace.

“At the end of the day, without lifting people out of poverty, without improving their daily life, you may have a durable peace, but you will not have the peace that is immune from the resumption of conflict.”

PHOTO: Jean Arnault, pictured at the High-Level Symposium "Challenging the Conventional: Can truth Commission Effectively Strengthen Peace Processes?" held in New York, November 2013. (ICTJ)