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Copyright © 2001 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the JHU Press.

Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 1-43


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The Truth of Truth Commissions: Comparative Lessons from Haiti, South Africa, and Guatemala

Audrey R. Chapman & Patrick Ball

I. Introduction

As the twenty-first century opens, many deeply divided societies are struggling to overcome a heritage of collective violence and severe human rights violations. The twentieth-century may be most remembered for its legacy of gross human rights violations and mass atrocities. Violent conflicts, massacres, and oppression by one group over another have torn apart the social fabric of countries in nearly every region of the world. The killing fields of Cambodia, South Africa's brutal apartheid system, genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia are [End Page 1] but some of the terrible examples. Added to this collective brutality are the state terrorism and repression of the Soviet and Chinese gulags, the gross human rights violations of many authoritarian regimes, and the disappearances and torture inflicted by military-dominated dictatorships on their own populations.

As a step in the process of healing and reconciliation, at least fourteen countries, 1 most recently South Africa and Guatemala, have established truth commissions or analogous bodies, and some have had more than one. Recent peace processes and ongoing efforts for national reconciliation have also proposed a role for truth commissions in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cambodia, Colombia, and Peru. Truth commissions are temporary bodies, usually with an official status, set up to investigate a past history of human rights violations that took place within a country during a specified period of time. In contrast with tribunals or courts, truth commissions do not have prosecutorial powers to bring cases to trial. Nor do they act as judicial bodies to investigate individuals accused of crimes. Their role is truth-finding, or more precisely, documenting and acknowledging a legacy of conflict and human rights violations as a step toward healing wounds. 2

Truth commissions, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, observed, offer a "third way," a compromise between the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II or the prospective International Criminal Court and blanket amnesty or national amnesia. 3 This "third way" is significant for several reasons. Establishing the basis for a shared future requires coming to terms with the past, but it is often very difficult to prosecute architects and perpetrators responsible for political violence and human rights violations, particularly when large numbers of people are involved. Even in the case of Nazi war crimes, fewer than 6,500 of the 90,000 cases brought to court resulted in convictions. 4 Given the scale of the collective violence in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, it is just not feasible to prosecute all the alleged offenders, and an effort to do so is likely to have thousands of persons languishing in detention for very long period of time. Moreover, few transitional countries have the strong legal institutions and resources [End Page 2] required for successful domestic prosecutions. Many of the civil servants, prosecutors, and judges serving the new government may themselves have been complicitous in abuses perpetrated by the previous regime, or at least sympathetic to its philosophy. Critical evidence and records are likely to be missing or destroyed. South Africa's unsuccessful effort to convict General Magnus Malan, army chief and later defense minister, for authorizing an assassination squad responsible for numerous extrajudicial executions shows how difficult it is to gather sufficiently detailed and reliable evidence to successfully prosecute alleged perpetrators. Many transitional societies choose to establish truth commissions because these bodies can potentially provide a far more comprehensive record of past history than the trials of specific individuals and do so in a less divisive manner. In contrast with criminal prosecutions, the purpose of a truth commission is to provide an authoritative account of a specific period or regime, determine the major causes of the violence, and make recommendations about measures to undertake so as to avoid a repetition in the future. By verifying the accounts of victims, official acknowledgment of abuses can support the credibility of victims' suffering and help restore their dignity. Moreover, public identification of perpetrators and their offenses constitutes one form of accountability, particularly if it leads to their exclusion or ineligibility for public office, and if not, at least imposes the punishment of shame. In addition, a truth commission can go beyond a court of law and render a moral judgment about what was wrong and unjustifiable, and in that way helps "to frame the events in a new national narrative of acknowledgment, accountability, and civic values." 5

Given the central role assigned to truth commissions, it is relevant to ask what is the nature of the "truth" that truth commissions are mandated to find? Analysts writing on truth commissions often portray truth as a single objective reality waiting to be discovered or found. As an example, Priscilla Hayner has commented that in many situations "the victimized populations are often clear about what abuses took place and who has carried them out. . . . Given this knowledge, the importance of truth commissions might be described more accurately as acknowledging the truth rather than finding the truth." 6

However, the documentation and interpretation of truth is more complex and ambiguous than many analysts and proponents of truth commissions assume. Social, technical, and methodological constraints, as well as epistemological limitations of what can be known, all affect a [End Page 3] commission's ability to produce an authoritative account. Developing an official authoritative account of a contested past, and especially doing so in an objective and careful manner consistent with strict standards of historical and social science research, requires far more than accumulating anecdotal evidence to support widely held beliefs about what has happened and who is responsible. If popular assumptions have little basis in fact, or if more serious violations have been hidden, the commission must refute popular understandings and conduct deep research.

This article identifies some of the complexities and factors shaping the efforts of truth commissions. It also evaluates the kinds of truths that truth commissions can most appropriately seek to determine. While truth commissions are often portrayed as generic bodies, they have very different approaches to the kind of "truth" they are seeking. Their official mandates, the perceptions and priorities of their commissioners and key staff, the methodological orientations utilized, and the level of resources available all shape the nature of their findings and the type of report they produce. In addition, decisions made by those working within a specific truth commission, sometimes without an understanding of their implications, often have important consequences for truth-finding. The analysis draws on the experience of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program in providing scientific and technical assistance to three recent truth commissions--the Haitian National Commission for Truth and Justice (CNVJ), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC), and the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) in Guatemala.

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