Following a motion introduced by Leader of the Opposition Mr. David Granger, for an Inquiry into criminal violence between 2004-2010, the governing party has moved that it may be better to establish a Truth Commission, with a mandate to hear testimony on violence going back to 1973. We are of the view that the idea of a Truth Commission has merit and we hope that it will be discussed and debated and finally established.
Ever since South Africa’s groundbreaking initiative in the post-Apartheid era with their “Peace and Reconciliation Commission”, the device has been used by quite a large number of states in post-conflict situations. This editorial will discuss the evolving practice of truth commissions and explore claims made on their behalf. They are increasingly seen not as weak substitutes for trials, but as having unique benefits and as superior to trials in some respects.
Since the mid-1970s, an unprecedented number of states have attempted the transition to democracy. One of the significant issues many of these states have had to deal with is how to induce different groups to peacefully coexist after years of conflict. Particularly since the early 1990s, the international human rights community has advocated truth commissions as an important part of the healing process, and they have been suggested as part of the peace process of virtually every international or communal conflict that has come to an end since.
Advocates of truth commissions argue that some reckoning with the past is necessary in order for former opponents to look to a peaceful shared future. Truth commissions are generally understood to be “bodies set up to investigate a past history of violations of human rights in a particular country — which can include violations by the military or other government forces or armed opposition forces.”
One expert delineates four main characteristics of truth commissions. First, they focus on the past. The events may have occurred in the recent past, but a truth commission is not an ongoing body akin to a human rights commission. Second, truth commissions investigate a pattern of abuse over a set period of time rather than a specific event. In its mandate, the truth commission is given the parameters of its investigation, both in terms of the time period covered as well as the type of human rights violations to be explored.
Third, a truth commission is a temporary body, usually operating over a period of six months to two years and completing its work by submitting a report. These parameters are established at the time of the commission’s formation, but often an extension can be obtained to wrap things up. Fourth, truth commissions are officially sanctioned, authorized, or empowered by the state.
This, in principle, allows the commission to have greater access to information, greater security, and increased assurance that its findings will be taken under serious consideration. Official sanction from the government is crucial, because it represents an acknowledgment of past wrongs and a commitment to address the issues and move on. Furthermore, governments may be more likely to enact recommended reforms if they have established the commission.
A number of other bodies have also been created to serve the similar function of investigating the past. In some instances, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sometimes created their own truth commissions where governments have failed to create one. For example the archbishop of Sao Paulo, with the support of the World Council of Churches, investigated human rights abuses under Brazil’s military regime when the government refused their calls for a formal inquiry. Other commissions of inquiry have examined individual events.
Truth commissions also need not be national in scope. The Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project in North Carolina created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in May 2004, to examine racially motivated killings by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party in 1979. Nor need they be governmental at all. South Africa’s African National Congress created two commissions in the early 1990s to investigate the internal activities of its own organization.
Let us move beyond pointing fingers.