It is increasingly common for countries emerging from civil war or authoritarian rule to create a truth commission to operate during the immediate post-transition period. These commissions—officially sanctioned, temporary, non-judicial investigative bodies—are granted a relatively short period for statement-taking, investigations, research and public hearings, before completing their work with a final public report. While truth commissions do not replace the need for prosecutions, they do offer some form of accounting for the past, and have thus been of particular interest in situations where prosecutions for massive crimes are impossible or unlikely— owing to either a lack of capacity of the judicial system or a de facto or de jure amnesty. As described below, the work of a truth commission may also strengthen any prosecutions that do take place in the future.
Unlike courts, for which there are clear international norms regarding their appropriate structure, components, powers and minimal standards for proceedings, truth commissions will reasonably differ between countries in many aspects. The experiences of over 30 truth commissions in the past two to three decades give rise to a number of best practice guidelines. This publication is intended to summarize these lessons, with the intention of guiding those setting up, advising or supporting a truth commission, as well as providing guidance to truth commissions themselves. The reader should also take into account the updated Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity.
The United Nations and other international actors have an important role in assisting such bodies in their establishment and operation. Many critical operational decisions and difficulties are outlined below, as is the role that various national and international actors may play.
Why establish a truth commission, and when?
The right for individuals to know the truth about the fate of disappeared persons or information about other past abuses has been affirmed by treaty bodies, regional courts, and international and domestic tribunals. A truth commission reaches out to thousands of victims in an attempt to understand the extent and the patterns of past violations, as well as their causes and con- sequences. The questions of why certain events were allowed to happen can be as important as explaining precisely what happened. Ultimately, it is hoped that the work of the commission can help a society understand and acknowledge a contested or denied history, and in doing so bring the voices and stories of victims, often hidden from public view, to the public at large. A truth commission also hopes to prevent further abuses through specific recommendations for institutional and policy reforms.
While some countries have constructed a truth commission around the notion of advancing reconciliation—or have seen such a commission as a tool that would naturally do this—it should not be assumed that such an inquiry will directly result in reconciliation either in the community or in the national or political sphere. Reconciliation is understood differently in different contexts. For some, the full acknowledgement of a long-denied truth will certainly advance reconciliation. But experience shows that many individual victims and communities may require more than the truth in order to forgive. Reconciliation is usually a very long and slow process, and the work of a truth commission may be only a part of what is required. When considering and designing a truth commission, therefore, care should be taken not to raise undue and unfair expectations among the victims that they, or the country as a whole, will or should feel quickly “reconciled” as a result of knowing the truth about unspeakable past atrocities—or, in some cases, receiving official acknowledgement of a truth that they already knew.
The expectations placed in a truth commission are often exaggerated in the public mind; it is important to manage such expectations and keep them within reason. An honest portrayal of what can be offered by a truth commission is important from the start. It should be recognized that a truth commission can ultimately have a significant political impact— even if unintended—in a context where, typically, some of the individuals or political entities that still hold power (or wish to gain power) may be the subject of inquiry. Where elections are planned to take place during the course of a commission’s work, or even shortly after a commission is due to conclude, the political consequences of its work can become very clear, and there may be pressure on a commission to halt, postpone or modify its schedule of hearings or the release of its final report. In some cases, it may be important for a commission to take these factors into account in planning its own calendar, while not altering the depth or focus of its investigations in any substantive way.
When is a country ripe for a truth commission? Three critical elements should be present. First, there must be the political will to allow and, hopefully, encourage or actively support a serious inquiry into past abuses. Ideally, the Government will show its active support for the process by providing funding, open access to State archives or clear direction to civil servants to cooperate. Second, the violent conflict, war or repressive practices must have come to an end. It is possible that the de facto security situation will not yet have fully improved, and truth commissions often work in a context where victims and witnesses are afraid to speak publicly or be seen to cooperate with the commission. Indeed, the commission itself may receive threats while undertaking its work. But if a war or violent conflict is still actively continuing throughout the country, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient space to undertake a serious inquiry. Third, there must be interest on the part of victims and witnesses to have such an investigative process undertaken and to cooperate with it. There are, of course, other possible means of addressing the past, including through inquiries by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or locally based processes that are less formalized than a national truth commission. These choices can ultimately only be made through broad consultation.
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