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Speaking Truth About Truth Commissions
*Rosa Ehrenreich
Extracted from Open Society News Summer 2001
June 01, 2001

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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.

Indeed, when 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 the truth
Sometimes 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 abuses.

As journalist 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 recur.

2. Finding the truth will promote healing for the victims, atonement by the perpetrators, and reconciliation for all
Some 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 forgiveness.

Nonetheless, 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.

3. Truth Commissions promote accountability
There 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Lessons to be learned
As 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.

Designers and 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 by perpetrators.

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?

Unfortunately, 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.

*Rosa Ehrenreich is an OSI consultant on international legal issues and an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

For more information
For information about international justice issues in Africa and beyond, visit No Peace Without justice at and information about transitional justice issues can be found at: the International Center for Transitional justice at

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