Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy

Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy

Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy

Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy

Synopsis

Since the 1980s a number of countries have established truth commissions to come to terms with the legacy of past human rights violations, yet little is known about the achievements and shortcomings of this popular transitional justice tool. Drawing on research on Chile's National Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and exploring the scholarship on thirteen other transitional contexts, Onur Bakiner evaluates the success of truth commissions in promoting policy reform, human rights accountability, and the public recognition of human rights violations. He argues that although political elites often see a truth commission as a convenient way to address past atrocities, the findings, historical narratives, and recommendations of such commissions often surprise, upset, and discredit influential political actors. Even when commissions produce only modest change as a result of political constraints, Bakiner contends, they open up new avenues for human rights activism by triggering the creation of new victims' organizations, facilitating public debates over social memory, and inducing civil society actors to monitor the country's human rights policy.

Bakiner demonstrates how truth commissions have recovered basic facts about human rights violations, forced societies to rethink the violence and exclusion of nation building, and produced a new dynamic whereby the state seeks to legitimize its central position between history and politics by accepting a high degree of societal penetration into the production and diffusion of official national history. By doing so, truth commissions have challenged and transformed public discourses on memory, truth, justice, reconciliation, recognition, nationalism, and political legitimacy in the contemporary world.

Excerpt

The National Theater of Guatemala City hosted an unusual crowd on February 25, 1999. the Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala’s truth commission, was going to hand over its final report to the nation’s president, Álvaro Arzú, before an audience of high-ranking civilian and military officials and a number of victims’ groups and human rights organizations. Members of the po liti cal elite must have been comfortable enough, thinking that the truth commission, systematically deprived of resources and juridical powers to carry out its mandate, would pre sent relatively uncontroversial results. However, the chair of the truth commission, Christian Tomuschat, took the stage to pre sent the findings that little by little took the comfort away from political leaders: findings that referred to some of the atrocities the military committed against the Mayan population during the civil war as acts of genocide; findings that excited the victims’ groups in the audience to such an extent that they began to clamor for “justicia!” At the end of the ceremony President Arzú, surprised and upset, refused to take the commission’s final report directly from Tomuschat’s hands and sent his peace secretary to receive the report instead.

South Africa’s famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission was facing accusations of bias since its inception. Opposition figures kept insisting that the African National Congress (ANC) established the panel to discredit politi cal rivals and impose its interpretation of history as the official truth. When the commission completed its task, the expectation was that ANC’s opponents, especially the members of the out going apartheid regime, would object to the final report, while the anc would endorse it wholeheartedly. T e opposition did not surprise the observers. However, some sectors within the anc leadership, disappointed to learn that the commission had implicated their movement in past atrocities, sought a last-minute po liti cal maneuver to prevent the final report from getting published. It was only Nelson Mandela’s personal intervention in favor of the commission that saved the report.

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