New Internationalist

Whose Truth?

Issue 385

Truth commissions may not be a panacea. But, argues Mark Freeman, they often do serve the public interest.

When Morocco’s Fairness and Reconciliation Commission was established last year by King Mohammed VI, the story was virtually ignored by the international media. Too bad, because it’s an extraordinary initiative – to investigate thousands of cases of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance that took place between Morocco’s independence in 1956 and 1999, when Mohammed VI became monarch.

The commission, which is headed by a former political prisoner and torture survivor, held televised public hearings across the country in 2005 during which torture survivors and relatives of the ‘disappeared’ recounted their experiences in horrifying detail.

The Moroccan commission is only the latest example of what are known generically as ‘truth commissions’ (TCs). Such commissions have emerged as an important aspect of a country’s recovery from periods of war or repression. In fact they’ve been around for over 30 years, operating under many different names. There are currently three truth commissions in operation: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Paraguay and Morocco. New truth commissions are about to be established in Indonesia, Liberia and Burundi.

At its core, a TC’s job is to investigate severe acts of violence or repression that occurred in a country’s relatively recent past. A truth commission covers a broad series of events and violations, rather than focusing on a single episode of violence or repression in the way that the recent Bloody Sunday inquiry in Northern Ireland did. Truth commissions are also backward-looking – their remit does not include current or future acts of violence or repression. That’s because they tend to be established post-conflict or at moments of democratic transition, when it is presumed that the worst violence has ended.

If truth commissions have an inherently backward-looking quality, they also have an inward-looking one. They primarily deal with acts of violence and repression committed in the state, by the state itself or by other actors, such as rebel movements or armed militias. In addition, TCs mostly work with, and on behalf of, victims. In this respect, they can complement criminal trials whose main focus is on the accused.

Another important aspect of truth commissions is their temporary character. They are built to do a finite investigation – often lasting about two years – and then disband. Although they’re sometimes confused with courts – particularly commissions that hold public hearings – they can’t impose sentences or award damages. However, like domestic courts, truth commissions are established or authorized by the state in which they operate. So they have an ‘official’ character which can give them an air of special authority in the eyes of the public.

It was the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – with its famous truth-for-amnesty formula – which brought the model to global attention

When people think of truth commissions they generally think of South Africa in the 1990s. In fact, the earliest TC was the 1983 National Commission on Disappeared Persons in Argentina. Operating without any obvious precedent, a civilian government established a commission of inquiry as one of its first official acts after the military dictatorship. Known by its Spanish acronym, CONADEP, the Argentine body conducted nine months of interviews, research and investigation into thousands of cases of forced ‘disappearance’ during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in the late 1970s. A condensed version of the commission’s final report, entitled Nunca Más (Never Again), became a national bestseller. The case files were fed immediately into criminal prosecutions against former junta leaders.

The Argentine model was followed by other countries in Latin America – Chile in 1990 and El Salvador in 1992. Other truth commissions emerged in Uganda in 1986, Nepal in 1990 and Chad in 1991.

Argentina had the original idea. But it was the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – with its famous truth-for-amnesty formula – which brought the model to global attention. Yet the TRC’s influence has had a perverse aspect. Not infrequently it has led people, even human rights ‘experts’, to reject TCs as a compromise on justice, even though the South African TRC remains the only one that had amnesty-granting power. The TRC also led to a misplaced expectation that such commissions would open the way to hundreds or thousands of confessions by the guilty. In practice, such confessions are rare – there are few legal incentives for disclosure and usually no real consequences for remaining silent.

Other public expectations may be equally misplaced. Can a truth commission lead to peace and democracy, the rule of law, national reconciliation, or reconciliation between victims and perpetrators? The fairest answer is that they may contribute to some of these objectives. But they cannot ensure their achievement.

A different type of misunderstanding concerns the relation of truth commissions to the courts. Until the last few years TCs had a number of detractors, including in the human rights movement itself.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch argued that TCs often served as ‘substitutes for justice’. That view assumed that there would be criminal trials instead. But in states emerging from massive trauma that’s usually a practical impossibility. This may be due to lack of political will as in El Salvador, weak or corrupt systems of justice as in Haiti, or legal obstacles such as amnesty laws as in Ghana. The result is that truth commissions may be the closest approximation of justice possible at that moment.

There are other important ways that they can serve the public interest. They almost always make detailed recommendations for victim reparation and legal reform. Even when not promptly or fully implemented such recommendations can help focus the advocacy efforts of human rights and victims’ organizations.

Truth commissions that broadcast public hearings on radio and television, where victims recount their stories before the eyes and ears of a nation, can also have a profound impact on public consciousness.

Such hearings can stimulate important public debates while helping to restore the dignity of victims. In Peru, the truth commission’s hearings put the pain of the past on full display for city dwellers who knew little about the bloodshed in the countryside.

By taking statements from victims and witnesses and by conducting intensive research TCs invariably uncover new and important facts. Many TCs have been able to provide reliable estimates of the total number of victims, highlight institutional or individual responsibility for violations, provide sophisticated analyses of trends and patterns of violence and debunk false accounts of the past. The truth commission in Chile, for example, is often credited with proving definitively that disappearances did occur under the Pinochet regime.

Given their limited lifespan and the vast scope of their investigations, no-one should imagine that TCs can reveal the full and complicated truth about the past. But they can be a critical tool in the fight against impunity. And they can learn from each other. Tomorrow’s truth commissions have the chance to apply important lessons from other countries about the importance of:

an independent and credible selection process for commissioners;

strong civil society engagement and support;

adequate financial and human resources.

As the UN Secretary-General’s 2004 report on ‘the rule of law and transitional justice’ affirms, these are lessons that new truth commissions ignore at their own peril. •

Mark Freeman is author of the forthcoming Truth Commissions and Procedural Fairness (Cambridge University Press). He currently works for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Brussels.

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