Truth and reconciliation commission

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Truth-seeking function[edit]

As bodies mandated by governments, truth commissions constitute a form of "official truth-seeking".[1] Thus they can provide proof against historical revisionism of state terrorism and other crimes and human rights abuses. Increasingly, supporters assert a "right to the truth" that commissions are well placed to carry forward. Truth commissions are sometimes criticised for allowing crimes to go unpunished, and creating impunity for serious human rights abusers. Their roles and abilities in this respect depend on their mandates, which vary widely.

One of the difficult issues that has arisen over the role of truth commissions in transitional societies, has centered on what should be the relationship between truth commissions and criminal prosecutions.[2]

In general, truth commissions issue final reports which seek to provide an authoritative narrative of past events, which sometimes challenges previously dominant versions of the past. Truth commissions emphasizing "historical clarification" include the Historical Clarification Commission in Guatemala with its focus on setting straight the former military government's version of the past, and the Truth and Justice Commission in Mauritius which focused on the legacy of slavery and indentured servitude over a long colonial period. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor also aimed to tell a new "national narrative" to replace the version of history that had been prevalent under foreign rule.

Reconciliation function[edit]

Within the scope of transitional justice, truth commissions tend to lean towards restorative rather than retributive justice models. This means they often favour efforts to reconcile divided societies in the wake of conflict, or to reconcile societies with their own troubled pasts, over attempts to hold those accused of human rights violations accountable. Less commonly, truth commissions advocate forms of reparative justice, efforts to repair past damage and help victims of conflict or human rights violations to heal.[3] This can take the form of reparations to victims, whether financial or otherwise; official apologies; commemorations or monuments to past human rights violations, or other forms. Reparations have been central, for instance, in Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission.

Reconciliation forms a crucial aspect of most commissions. In some cases, peace agreements or the terms of transfers of power prevent court prosecutions and allow impunity for former rulers accused of human rights violations or even crimes against humanity, and truth commissions appear as the major alternative. In other cases, governments see the opportunity to unite divided societies and offer truth and reconciliation commissions as the way to reach that goal. Truth commissions formed part of peace settlements in El Salvador, Congo, Kenya, and others.

Commissions often hold public hearings in which victims/survivors can share their stories and sometimes confront their former abusers. These processes sometimes include the hope of forgiveness for past crimes and the hope that society can thereby be healed and made whole again.[4] The public reconciliation process is sometimes praised for offering a path to reconciliation, and sometimes criticised for promoting impunity and further traumatising victims.

On some occasions, truth commissions have been criticized for narrow mandates or lack of implementation after their reports. Examples include Chad's Commission of Inquiry into Crimes and Misappropriations committed by former president Hissene Habre and the Philippines Truth Commission which has been criticized as selective justice. A short-lived Commission of Truth and Reconciliation in Yugoslavia never reported as the country that created it ceased to exist. In others, such as Rwanda, it has been impossible to carry out commission recommendations due to a return to conflict.

Early truth commissions[edit]

The first truth commissions did not use the name, but aimed to unearth the truth about human rights violations under military regimes, predominantly in Latin America. Bolivia established a National Commission of Inquiry Into Disappearances in 1982 based on bringing together disparate sectors of society after the end of military rule, but the commission never reported.

The first such commission to be effective was Argentina's National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, created by President of Argentina Raúl Alfonsín on 15 December 1983. It issued the Nunca Más (Never Again) report, which documented human rights violations under the military dictatorship known as the National Reorganization Process. The report was delivered to Alfonsín on 20 September 1984 and opened the door to the Trial of the Juntas, the first major trial held for war crimes since the Nuremberg trials in Germany following World War II and the first to be conducted by a civilian court.

Other early commissions were established in diverse locations including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nepal, and the Philippines.

The Chilean TRC[edit]

Established in Chile in April 1990,[5] shortly after this country's return to democracy, this was the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission to use this name and most truth commissions since then have used a variation on this title.

The South African TRC and after[edit]

The most famous truth commission was formed in South Africa in 1995.

South Africa's TRC formed in the aftermath of apartheid as a deal between the former white-minority regime and the African National Congress. The ANC's call for "truth" about the apartheid years combined with the ruling National Party's demand for amnesty for many of the perpetrators of apartheid to create the hybrid "truth and reconciliation" commission led by Bishop Desmond Tutu that supporters hoped would heal the wounds of the past, give dignity to victims,[6] and permit the emergence of a post-apartheid "rainbow nation" led by Nelson Mandela. Commissions have been widespread in the aftermath of conflict as components of peace agreements in Africa since the 1990s, from Congo to Sierra Leone.

In the two decades following its report, more than 20 truth commissions have operated. These include repeat commissions in some countries where the first commission was constrained and new governments felt it had not carried out a full accounting for the past. Chile's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was followed by a National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture; the Nepalese Truth Commission (1990-1991) was followed by a new commission in 2014; and there have been calls for a new truth commission to supplement the Panama Truth Commission established in 2000.

Truth commissions are a tool originally established in the Third World but have started to operate in developed countries with targeted mandates related to indigenous peoples or the aftermath of communism. Canada's truth commission focused on the legacies of Indian residential schools and indigenous-settler relations; Australia has also held a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. On the other hand, Germany has held two truth commissions on human rights violations in the former East Germany.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Hayner, Priscilla (2010). Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415806350. 
  2. ^ See Lyal S. Sunga "Ten Principles for Reconciling Truth Commissions and Criminal Prosecutions", in The Legal Regime of the ICC (Brill) (2009) 1075-1108.
  3. ^ Quinn, Joanna. tba. 
  4. ^ Amstutz, Mark R. (2005). The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness. Rowman & Littlefield. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Kesselring, Rita (2017). Bodies of Truth: law, memory and emancipation in post-apartheid South Africa. Stanford University Press. 


External links[edit]