Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Instruments for Ending Impunity and Building Lasting Peace

By Reddy, Paavani | UN Chronicle, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Instruments for Ending Impunity and Building Lasting Peace


Reddy, Paavani, UN Chronicle


The past two decades have been a period of intense political change across the world. Dictatorial governments fell, through either military victory or a transition to democratic government, and civil wars ended in many countries across South America, Eastern Europe and Africa. One commonality of these situations was the widespread use of violence, including disappearances, murder, torture, rape and illegal detentions to clamp down popular demands for democracy and human rights and for self-governance.

Post-conflict, newly-established or interim governments were faced with the dilemma of addressing the past and its State-sponsored abuses while preparing for the future by building a democratic society based on the rule of law. In many cases, this dilemma was further compounded by peace agreements that provided some kind of amnesty for former oppressors or by former elites granting themselves amnesties before the transition. (1) Moreover, perpetrators of past crimes and their sympathizers often continued to occupy positions of power in government, including the judiciary, police and military, making prosecutions difficult. And this problem was often exacerbated by a lack of evidence. In response to these unfavourable circumstances for providing justice to victims, a non-judicial approach was adopted in numerous States undergoing transition.

Truth commissions were established to officially investigate and provide an accurate record of the broader pattern of abuses committed during repression and civil war. The Commission of Inquiry into the Disappearances of People in Uganda was the first to be established to investigate abuses and make recommendations. Since then, there have been more than thirty truth commissions worldwide, including in Argentina, Chile, Timor-Leste, El Salvador, Guatemala and more importantly South Africa. Their success is highly remarkable. "Truth commissions today", according to Jose Alvarez, Professor of International Law at Columbia University, "are inescapable tools in establishing the truth of past crimes and a means for victim recompense and instruments to promote peace and reconciliation." Most recently, the United Nations Secretary-General's report on "The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies" praised them as "a potentially valuable complementary tool in the quest for justice and reconciliation" and in "restoring public trust in national institutions of governance".

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Truth and reconciliation commissions, unlike traditional courts, focus primarily on the victims and rely heavily on their accounts. They provide a forum for survivors to tell their stories and suffering through private or public hearings. Such accounts form an integral part of the commission's analysis of the broader pattern of abuse, usually in a comprehensive final report, and in many cases have led to criminal prosecutions and dismissal of perpetrators from government positions. Despite these commonalities, there are no set principles that dictate the nature and scope of the commissions. They differ widely, depending on the nature of the conflict and the political will to address past abuses in a specific context. For example, the truth commissions in South America, particularly in Argentina and Chile, had a limited mandate to investigate crimes committed during military rule or civil war, including politically motivated detentions and disappearances. They did not have the power to subpoena witnesses and had little or no access to military and police files. Others, like the El Salvadorian and South African commissions that had access to such files, faced non-cooperation from the police and military or found that relevant documentation had been destroyed, thus compromising their investigation. Despite these serious shortcomings, truth commissions have proved to be very successful in compiling the testimony of thousands of victims and bringing the truth to light. …

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