Truth, Reconciliation, Transformation and Human Rights

By Vorster, J. M. | The Ecumenical Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Truth, Reconciliation, Transformation and Human Rights


Vorster, J. M., The Ecumenical Review


In recent years, "truth commissions" have emerged in many countries which experienced transitions from oppressive political systems with mass human-rights violations to stable democracies and sound economic policies. These commissions have attempted to deal with past injustices in a manner that would ensure reconciliation and transformation to a better society. (1) Of these, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) attracted worldwide attention due to the astonishing change brought about by a negotiated settlement without the bloody revolution many people inside and outside South Africa had feared. The few years that have passed after the publication of its report gives the researcher the opportunity to evaluate not only the findings but also the effects of this process on the diverse South African society.

In the execution of their mandates these truth commissions encountered many questions which posed not only legal but also ethical questions. This is also true of the South African experience. The most important ethical questions are the following:

* When can the process of truth-seeking and the exercise of justice be regarded as sufficient to serve the cause of reconciliation?

* What kind of justice should be administered in such a process?

* What is the essence of reconciliation in a socio-political context?

* What about impunity and amnesty of former leaders in view of their human-rights violations? Most of all, what should the relation be between reconciliation and transformation in order to manifest restorative justice without putting unity at risk?

* What are the core conditions for a sustainable peaceful and reconciled society, and what are the roles that the state and the church should play in this regard?

The purpose of this article is to reflect on these questions from a Christian ethical perspective.

Seeking the truth

The first important issue in the reconciliation process in South Africa was the establishment of an effective truth-seeking instrument. In the establishment of such an instrument two decisive topics had to be addressed. First, the instrument had to be an effective means to ensure that the truth would be revealed in order to serve reconciliation. Second, the instrument had to contain the capacity and the freedom of judgment to decide when the truth is sufficient to serve this broader purpose. The TRC in South Africa was planned with these two issues in mind.

It was established by the promulgation of an act of parliament, namely the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (1995). The objectives of the commission were stated in chapter 2, section 3(1) and read as follows:

The objectives of the Commission shall be to promote national reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends conflicts and divisions of the past by:

a) establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights which were committed during the period from 1 March 1960 to the cut-off date, including the antecedents, circumstances, factors and context of such violations, as well as the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of the violations, by conducting investigations and holding hearings;

b) facilitating the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective and comply With the requirements of this act:

c) establishing and making known the fate or whereabouts of victims by granting them an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations of which they are the victims, and by recommending reparation measures in respect of them;

d) compiling a report providing as comprehensive an account as possible of the activities and findings of the commission contemplated in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), and which contains recommendations of measures to prevent the future violations of human rights. …

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