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Truth About Truth Commissions
Extracted from Open Society News Summer 2001
June 01, 2001
the article online
In the newly
emerged field of "transitional justice," truth commissions are an
increasingly popular device for trying to heal societies scarred
by ethnic and political violence. One 2000 study concludes that
at least 21 truth commissions have already completed their work
in countries around the world. Unlike individualized prosecutions,
truth commissions can appear to offer a cheap, fast, participatory
way for a society to come to terms with a legacy of past wrongs.
When the search
for "truth" is coupled with the promise of "reconciliation," the
idea can seem even more compelling. The recent and well- publicized
South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated
with the blessing of Nelson Mandela and under the guidance of Nobel
laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, helped further popularize and legitimize
the concept of truth commissions. Today, countries from Indonesia
to Serbia and Ghana are initiating truth commissions.
But are truth
commissions all they're cracked up to be? While a well-designed,
well-resourced truth commission can in some circumstances play a
critical role in ending impunity and bringing about a lasting peace,
other truth commissions may have little impact. In some cases, truth
com- missions may exacerbate tensions, worsen conflicts, or ultimately
under- mine the idea of the rule of law by allowing perpetrators
to go unpunished.
it comes to truth commissions, there are often more myths than truths.
Here are three of the most common myths about truth commissions:
I. They find
they do, and sometimes they don't. In South Africa, the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission had an enormous budget, subpoena power,
and the ability to grant amnesties to perpetrators who otherwise
faced a real chance of ending up in jail. As a result, the South
African TRC did unearth many sordid truths. But other truth commissions
have had minimal resources and little ability to compel testimony
or the production of key evidence. At times, still-powerful perpetrators
have done their best to intimidate witnesses or commission staff.
In such cases, truth commissions may accomplish little-at worst,
they may end up, wittingly or unwittingly, papering over serious
Michael Ignatieff ruefully noted, truth commissions don't necessarily
find "the truth." What they can do, at best, is "narrow the range
of permissable lies." Of course, this is not a trivial accomplishment.
Simply arriving at a widely accepted and credible account of what
happened under repressive regimes that specialized in lies and dis-information
can sometimes go a long way toward ensuring that past abuses won't
the truth will promote healing for the victims, atonement by the
perpetrators, and reconciliation for all
victims do report that they were able to come to peace with what
happened to them or to their loved ones when their suffering was
publicly acknowledged. The occasional televised images from South
Africa of perpetrators and victims weeping and embracing each other
offer moving testimony to the possibility of genuine atonement and
people handle trauma in different ways: some victims want to see
perpetrators punished, and some perpetrators acknowledge their crimes
without a trace of remorse. For some, truth commissions may dig
up old hurts and raise tensions-even provoke violent backlashes.
In Rwanda, a truth commission did nothing to prevent the 1994 genocide.
In Sierra Leone, the 1998 Lome Peace Accord granted amnesty to the
Rebel United Front (RUF) (famed for hacking off the limbs of civilian
victims) and provided for the creation of a TRC. Sierra Leone's
parliament passed legislation to set up a TRC in February 2000,
but by May 2000, the RUF had returned to the battlefront and taken
hundreds of peacekeepers hostage. Even in South Africa, one carefully
executed public opinion poll found that race relations actually
deteriorated as a result of the TRC.
Commissions promote accountability
can be little doubt that truth commissions in some countries have
helped promote accountability. Although the truth commission that
operated in Argentina after that country's "dirty war" faced formidable
obstacles, it's findings ultimately paved te way for several prosecutions.
In Chile, a truth commission report was initially ignored by most
perpetrators, but the evidence the commission gathered later fueled
prosecutions of Pinochet, first in Spain and ultimately in Chile.
much of the time, truth commissions have traded the pursuit of "truth"
and "reconciliation". In El Salvador, a UN-administered truth commission
did lead to the removal of many senior military officials from their
positions - but they were retired with full military honors. In
Nigeria, televised truth commissions have provided a popular form
of entertainment, but few harbor hopes that anyone will end up in
court. In Indonesia, government promises to prosecute human rights
abusers in conjunction with a TRC remain largely unfulfilled.
more and more countries look to truth commissions to address past
wrongs and promote peace and reconciliation, donors will be inclined
to provide financial and technical support.
The desire to
support truth commissions is understandable, but donors should not
regard them as a panacea. Badly designed truth commissions can,
in some situations, do as much harm as good. Truth commissions can
founder when the public has unduly high expectations about justice,
cornpensation, or reconciliation. They can also founder when powerful
players ignore or try to undermine them.
supporters of truth commissions must face tough questions about
what issues and time frames a truth commission should cover, and
whether the TRC should have subpoena power, the ability to name
individual perpetrators, the ability to recommend prosecution or
amnesty, and the ability to recommend compensation for victims.
Commissioners need to be chosen through a credible process, a budget
and structure must be developed, funds must be raised, and competent
staff must be hired. Difficult decisions must be made about how
to take testimony, what kinds of hearings to hold, how to involve
the public, the media, and key stakeholders. In many cases, a witness
protection scheme must be designed to protect witnesses from intimidation
When it comes
to truth commissions, one size does not fit all. What kind of truth
commission will work best — and whether a truth commission is appropriate
at all-will depend very much on a given society’s unique circumstances.
How widespread and serious were past abuses? Were they largely restricted
to a political elite, as in Ghana, or did they ultimately involve
genocide, with hundreds of thousands of victims and many thou- sands
of perpetrators, as in Rwanda? Were the abuses hidden, or were they
widely known? Does the court system function efficiently and independently?
Are prosecutions an option? Is renewed civil war, or a coup, likely?
Can commissioners operate without fear of retaliation? Can the government
afford to set up a truth commission, pay compensation to victims,
and overhaul many government agencies in response to recommendations
from a truth commission?
some governments rush to establish truth commissions without fully
sorting through these issues, either because they are eager to pacify
domestic constituencies or because they face pressure from the international
community to "do something" to address past abuses. The challenge
for OSI will be to provide financial support and technical assistance
for governments and NGOs that are genuinely wrestling with the best
way to address past abuses, without uncritically jumping on the
truth commission bandwagon.
is an OSI consultant on international legal issues and an associate
professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law.
information about international justice issues in Africa and beyond,
visit No Peace Without justice at www.npwj.org
and information about transitional justice issues can be found at:
the International Center for Transitional justice at www.ictj.org
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