Truth Commissions

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Truth Commissions

A truth commission is an official, temporary body set up to investigate a period of past human rights violations or violations of human rights law. After taking statements from victims, witnesses, and others, a truth commission produces a final report that is usually made public and serves as an official acknowledgment of what was often before either widely denied or little understood.

The 1990s showed a sharp increase in the global interest in such unofficial truth-seeking for countries emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict, and this interest has continued in the decade of the 2000s. By 2004 there were over thirty examples of truth commissions that had existed in all regions of the world.

A truth commission is officially sanctioned, either by the government or the armed opposition, where relevant, sometimes also with the backing of the international community such as the United Nations. A truth commission can thus be distinguished from the efforts undertaken by nongovernmental organizations to document abuses, as important as those also may be, as such official commissions generally have better access to information and will receive much greater attention to their work.

Goals of Truth Commissions

A truth commission may be established with a number of aims. In addition to discovering or more publicly revealing the extent of past abuses, such a commission can look into the causes as well as the consequences of what took place, identifying patterns of wrongdoing and broader institutional responsibility, that cannot always be done through the courts. In addition, a truth commission is usually focused primarily on victims' experiences, providing victims and survivors with a supportive context in which to recount their story. Some victims find the process of telling their story to an official and credible body an important part of their healing process, although many still find it painful to remember and describe such traumatic memories in great detail. Another important aim of a truth commission is to learn from the past in order to put forward recommended reforms that will help prevent such abuses in the future.

Truth commissions are understood to be part of the broader field of transitional justice, and are best instituted when done in a manner that complements other initiatives to obtain accountability. While truth commissions themselves do not have the power to put someone in jail for their past deeds, they may still make publicly known that certain named individuals were responsible for past crimes, which can have other subsequent effects. Indeed, the late twentieth century has shown that the relationship between truth commissions and other forms of accountability, especially that of prosecution and vetting, can be quite positive. Often there is a clear interrelationship between truth commissions and other measures that address victims, as well as broader societal needs, such as reparations programs and institutional reform.

Truth commissions are usually set up through national legislation, or sometimes by way of presidential decree. In some cases, such as in El Salvador and Sierra Leone, a truth commission was first agreed to in a national peace accord. Their terms of reference can be quite broad, typically covering more than a decade of violence or abuses, sometimes going back even as far as thirty-five or forty years. The founding legislation or decree may leave some flexibility for the commission to determine its precise scope, but generally a truth commission is directed to try to determine the causes as well as consequences of the abuses that took place, through speaking with victims, undertaking research and investigations, holding public hearings, if appropriate, and completing a final report with recommendations.

The first truth commissions were established in the 1970s, but the first well-known truth commission was established in Argentina in 1983, at the end of a seven-year period of military rule. This National Commission on the Disappeared found that close to eight thousand persons had been forcibly "disappeared" by government forces during the period of military rule. Years later, the findings from this commission were used to implement a reparations program for families of the victims. Since then, prominent truth commissions have been established throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and there has been at least one example in eastern Europe. For example, the early-to mid-1990s saw such commissions established in Chile, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, and South Africa, and by the early 2000s, such bodies were created in Peru, East Timor, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. By that time, it was widely accepted in the international community that transitions from authoritarianism or armed conflict were likely to at least consider establishing an official, nonjudicial truth-seeking mechanism as part of a transitional accountability package.

Despite the increasing support for and understanding of these investigative bodies on the international level, it remains important that the decision to establish a truth commission—including the precise form that it might take and powers and mandate that it is given—remain a national one. One of the primary purposes of a truth commission, that of assisting a process of national reflecting and acknowledgment of the wrongs committed in the past, is unlikely to result from an internationally imposed or internationally determined process.

However, there may be an important role for the international community in providing funding and technical assistance, and in some cases some of the members of a truth commission have been internationals.

How Truth Commissions Operate

Typically operating for one to two years, a truth commission generally takes statements from thousands of victims, its staff traveling throughout the country and perhaps even overseas to collect information from survivors of the past violence. A few of the truth commissions that have existed have been given quite strong investigatory powers, including powers to subpoena and the powers of search and seizure, allowing them to enter into premises without prior notice. These powers have been used to obtain documents and other information from prisons and government offices, for example.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission received a great amount of international attention, in part because it was given unique powers to grant amnesty to individuals who confessed and fully described their crimes, if those individuals could demonstrate that the crimes were committed for political rather than personal motivation. This arrangement set out in the Commissions founding legislation, contributed to hundreds of perpetrators describing the details of their crimes in public hearings, aired live on radio and broadcast on television, making it impossible for the public to deny the level of abuse that had taken place under apartheid. The South African commission is the only truth commission that has been given amnesty-granting powers. Others can either request or subpoena perpetrators to come forward, but without offering an amnesty in exchange.

The question of how these nonjudicial investigatory bodies relate to or have an impact on prosecutions of human rights abusers in the courts has been of great interest over the years. Initially, especially in the early to mid-1990s, there was fear that the creation of truth commissions would somehow displace or reduce the possibility of prosecutions taking place for the crimes covered by the commission. In some cases, an existing amnesty, or a new agreement to grant amnesty in the context of a peace accord, has spurred the establishment of a truth commission. But there is rarely an explicit link between the two. There often is an overlap in the substantive focus of a truth commission and any domestic or international investigations that may be underway for the purposes of prosecuting accused perpetrators. However, time has shown that these commissions can in fact strengthen the possibility of successful prosecutions, by sharing information with the courts during or after the commission's investigations are completed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru, for example, established a judicialization unit within the commission and prepared cases that it recommended for prosecution by the appropriate authorities.

Some truth commissions also contribute to individual accountability by naming the names of persons that they find to be responsible for abuses in the past. The El Salvador Commission on the Truth, for example, named over forty persons, identifying their direct involvement in planning or carrying out some of the most egregious acts that took place during the country's civil war from 1980 to 1991. The minister of defense was named for his direct involvement in major atrocities committed years earlier, for example, and the president of the Supreme Court was named for prejudicial and politically motivated attempts to block investigations into a 1981 massacre. Some persons named by the Salvadoran commission were removed from their posts, but the government quickly passed a broad amnesty that prevented prosecutions.

Truth commissions are generally established where widespread abuses took place and where they were unaccounted for or officially denied at the time. However, some countries that have suffered some of the more infamous histories of genocide or intense violence in the decades of the late twentieth century, such as Rwanda or Cambodia, have chosen not to put a truth commission in place. This may be due to a lack of popular interest in delving into the past, or perhaps insufficient political interest in investigating and revealing the full nature, extent, and institutional or personal involvement in past crimes. There can be political and personal risks as well as traumas associated with digging into such a fraught and painful period, and thus some countries choose not to institute such an inquiry during a political transition.

While all truth commissions as of the early 2000s have found and reported on unspeakable violence, few have concluded that the violence constituted genocide, per se. The truth commission in Guatemala, called the Commission for Historical Clarification, was under pressure from victims and survivor groups to include such an explicit finding it its final report, in recognition of the tens of thousands of indigenous Mayan people who were targeted and killed in the course of the war. After close legal analysis of the nature and extent of the violence, the commission did conclude that government forces committed "acts of genocide" as part of its counterinsurgency strategy early in the civil war. This finding, along with the commission's other strong conclusions, received an emotional response from a population whose suffering had very rarely been acknowledged by the state.

Over time, new truth commissions have been formed with more creative and far-reaching mandates. Some have been designed to work very closely with indigenous or nationally rooted and community-based mechanisms. In East Timor, for example, a truth commission facilitated perpetrator confessions and negotiated agreement for low-level perpetrators to undertake community service or provide a symbolic payment, thus allowing the perpetrator to be reintegrated fully into his or her community. In Sierra Leone, some truth commission hearings ended with indigenously based cleansing ceremonies, with Sierra Leonean paramount chiefs overseeing a process of accepting back into the community those wrongdoers who had confessed. More of these kinds of creative approaches may well be incorporated into new truth commissions in the future.

Because truth commissions are generally instituted after a period of repression or violence has come to an end, their main focus is to learn from that past and to make specific recommendations to help prevent the reoccurrence of such abuses in the future. These recommendations often include institutional reforms, such as strengthening the judicial system or legal framework so that proper and independent oversight of the actions of government and armed forces will take place when complaints are made. In some contexts, recommendations also address social, educational, and even cultural aspects of society and the need to make changes, addressed not only to the government but sometimes to society at large.

In addition to reforms that may take place on an official level, advocates hope that an honest understanding and recognition of the extent of past abuses will help to strengthen societal resistance to allowing such events to take place again.

But few truth commissions have had the power to adopt conclusions that are mandatory. Such conclusions are often considered as recommendations, and some well-formulated proposals have not been followed up by the government and implemented as policy. The commission itself generally ceases to exist with the submission of its report, leaving the lobbying around policy implementation to civil society organizations. A few truth commissions, however—in El Salvador and Sierra Leone—have been given the power to address resolutions to the government that are agreed in advance to be obligatory. In addition, the legislation that set up the Sierra Leone commission allows for the creation of a follow-up committee at end of the commission's work. The goal of that commission is to track and publicly report on the progress of implementation of the original commission's recommendations. These and other examples show society's increasing concern to strengthen the long-term impact of truth commissions.

SEE ALSO Argentina; Chile; El Salvador; Guatemala; South Africa


Chapman, Audrey R., and Patrick Ball (2001). "The Truth of Truth Commissions: Comparative Lessons from Haiti, South Africa, and Guatemala." Human Rights Quarterly 23:1.

Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (1993). Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, trans. Phillip E. Berryman. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press.

Goldstone, Richard J. (1996). "Justice as a Tool for Peace-Keeping: Truth Commissions and International Criminal Tribunals." New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 28:485.

Hayner, Priscilla B. (2001). Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. New York: Routledge.

Parleviet, Michelle (1998). "Considering Truth: Dealing with a Legacy of Gross Human Rights Violations." Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 16:141.

Posel, Deborah, and Graeme Simpson, eds. (2002). Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press.

Rotberg, Robert I., and Dennis Thompson, eds. (2000). Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (1999). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. New York: Grove's Dictionaries.

Villa-Vicencio, Charles, and Wilhelm Verwoerd, eds. (2000). Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. London: Zed Books.

Priscilla B. Hayner