A Truth Commission for Africa?

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article considers the feasibility of establishing a truth commission for Africa (TCA). A TCA's purpose would be to contribute to reconciliation between Africa and the west by agreeing on a narrative "truth" about historic relations between these regions. This truth would constitute one aspect of western reparations to Africa, as suggested at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001.

I first consider pragmatic, legal, and moral reasons for a search for truth. I then consider discussions that emerged from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission about different "kinds" of truth. I continue with some thoughts about how, by whom, and with what terms of reference a TCA would be established. Finally, I discuss whether a TCA would actually effect reconciliation.

My comments are based in part upon conversations with Africans about reparations. From June 2002 to April 2004, two research assistants and I interviewed 76 Africans from 25 countries about the relationship between Africa and the west. These individuals included eight ambassadors to the United States, 26 scholars, and 39 human rights activists and policy makers.1 They also included the three remaining active members of the Group of Eminent Persons established in 1992 by the then Organization of African Unity to seek reparations to Africa.2 While the people we interviewed were not representative of "ordinary" Africans, they are the kind of people likely to be involved in any serious discussion of a truth commission for Africa.

From the Nuremburg trials to recent truth commissions, discussions of both punitive and reparative justice have focused on violations of civil and political rights. In what follows, I discuss whether a TCA should also consider violations of economic rights. Much of the dialogue between the west and Africa is about past and present causes of underdevelopment. Underdevelopment is an all-encompassing term for massive deprivation of economic rights. The west owes Africans the truth about this kind of suffering, as much as it owes them the truth about the deprivation of Africans' civil and political rights.

JUSTIFICATION OF A TRUTH COMMISSION FOR AFRICA

The final declaration of the 2001 world conference against racism made special note of the need to teach "about the facts and truth of ...history," arguing that "remembering the crimes or wrongs of the past...and telling the truth about history are essential elements for international reconciliation."3 Before the conference, the respected nongovernmental ; organization Human Rights Watch proposed something akin to a truth commission. "We propose...the establishment of national and international panels to examine racist practices. These would include...panels for specific countries that would examine the degree to which the slave trade and colonialism, as opposed to the subsequent practices of the post-independence government, have contributed to the destitution of the country's population."4

In 2001 the Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights of the United Nations also passed a resolution about slavery and colonialism, affirming that they were crimes against humanity, and that the "historic responsibility" of the powers responsible for these crimes should be "the subject of solemn and formal recognition and repair." One method of such recognition and repair, in the sub-commission's view, would be debate and reflection "on the basis of accurate information."5

Following these several suggestions, a TCA might be one aspect of reparations to Africa, in the sense of "making whole" the relationship between Africa and the west. It would be a "historic" commission, not one designed to discover the truth about individual perpetrators and victims in the recent past, as were the truth commissions that proliferated in Central < and South America, and Africa, in the 19803 and 905. …

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