National reconciliation conference

Representatives of political and civil-society groups in Guinea- Bissau stressed their commitment to a return to constitutional order at a conference that marked the first time such a broad cross section of forces have met there since the civil war.

"The national reconciliation conference resembled those held in other parts of Africa (earlier in the decade) in that all political and civil society forces were present," a humanitarian source told IRIN on Wednesday.

It provided a forum for dialogue between these forces and for coming up with "principles and recommendations which, from now on, should be applied in the future governance of Guinea Bissau," the source said.

Guinea-Bissau was wracked in 1998 by a war between the government of then president Joao Bernardo Vieira and a Military Junta headed by Brigadier-General Ansumane Mane. Under a peace agreement signed at the end of 1998, an interim government was set up early this year, but the Military Junta overthrew Vieira on 7 May 1999.

One of the principles agreed on by participants in the conference, held on 12-14 August at the Junta's headquarters - the military barracks in Bissau - was that there should be reconciliation without excluding anyone.

However, there should be no impunity. Justice must be done, but there should be no vengeance, they noted in a set of recommendations and proposals faxed to IRIN.

They also stressed that the return to institutional and constitutional normalcy should be based on free elections, and urged the government to do everything in its power to have the polls held on 28 November 1999, as provided for in the 1998 peace agreement.

They also called on interim President Malam Bacai Sanha to veto Article 5 of a new draft constitution, approved in July by the National Assembly, which states that only people whose parents were nationals can become president.

If upheld, the requirement would exclude about half the nation's people, many of whom are of Cape Verdean, Guinean, Senegalese and Malian origin, the source said, adding that "it has created deep political malaise".

Freedom of expression should be guaranteed and "no one must be arrested simply because he or she belonged to the former regime", participants in the conference said. The trials of people who committed abuses during the war should also include the Junta, they added, since it also committed crimes during the civil war.

The conference urged the Junta to stick to its decision to keep the military in the barracks and to make sure all the military are, in fact, back in their barracks before 28 November.

A source told IRIN that officially the military had gone back to the barracks but, in practice, they were still running the country. "It's a military regime capped by civilians," the source said.

The conference was organised by the Movimento Nacional da Sociedade Civil para a Paz, Democracia e Desenvolvimento - an umbrella created last year by civil society groups - with support from the UN Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS), which provided US $30,000 for the meeting.

It was attended by more than 300 persons representing the Military Junta, armed forces, government, religious communities, grassroot groups, traditional chiefs, ex-combatants, women's associations and youth organisations.

The conference urged the United Nations to keep - and strengthen - UNOGBIS, which has 11 members of staff, until political and constitutional normalcy are guaranteed. According to a participant, the event demonstrated the role UNOGBIS played in consolidating peace and, in particular, in safeguarding the credibility of the UN system.

The United Nations' credibility in Guinea-Bissau, the source said, was strongly damaged during the rushed evacuation of UN officials during the upheavals there, an action criticised by the population.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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