Truth commissions may not be a
panacea. But they often do serve the public interest.
by Mark Freeman
New Internationalist magazine,
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
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
backwardlooking 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.
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
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
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.