Skip to main content

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions


Many countries with histories of widespread human rights abuses in the past have turned to truth and reconciliation commissions as an institutional solution to the problem of transitional justice and attempted democratization. Although these commissions take many formsand are assigned a variety of mandateseach is charged with investigating the truth of past events with the hope that knowing about the truth will contribute to reconciliation. Roughly two dozen such commissions have been created (including one in Greensboro, North Carolina, charged with discovering the truth of what happened during a political riot in 1979). Many more such tribunals are being considered in countries trying to confront their troubled pasts (e.g., Iraq).

Nearly all truth commissions have the aim of creating a collective memory about the past. This ranges from official versions of who did what to whom to macrohistorical treatises (e.g., what role did religious organizations play in the maintenance of apartheid in South Africa?). The objective of truth commissions is to get widespread acceptance of a historical narrative, typically under the assumption that battling continually over whether historical injustices actually took place (e.g., Holocaust deniers) is not productive.

Some truth commissions are empowered to grant amnesty to gross human rights violators. The theory is that, with amnesty, perpetrators will come forward and admit their crimes, allowing a collective memory to be constructed. Amnesty schemes are controversial because by definition they create a retributive justice deficit. Amnesty provisions vary widely, from individual to blanket amnesties, and are often accompanied by selective prosecutions of those not qualifying for amnesty (e.g., those who committed their crimes without political motives). Many social scientists believe that amnesties play a valuable role in democratization processes by allowing the forces of the ancien régime to retire from politics and to refrain from acting as spoilers of the transition. Others, however, point to the failure to achieve retribution as a crucial flaw in amnesty programs and argue that, without the punishment of wrongdoers, little deterrent to future human rights abuses exists.

Reconciliation is a more complicated concept, in part because some would limit reconciliation to the relationship between victims and perpetrators, whereas others treat the concept as referring to entire societies. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for instance, was charged with transforming South African societywhich, of course, was overwhelmingly comprised of bystanders, not victims and perpetrators of gross human rights violations. Generally, reconciliation requires that people of disparate political views tolerate one another and agree to limit political competition to peaceful and democratic means.

The form that truth commissions taketheir structure, functions, and powersis typically hotly contested by competing political factions, which makes such tribunals hard to establish in the first place. A key issue in such disputes concerns the evenhandedness of the commissions activities, and in particular whether all sides in political struggles should be held accountable to the same human rights standards. Some distinguish between victors justice and transitional justice, with the latter being characterized by a willingness to cast blame for human rights atrocities broadly across all combatants. With truth commissions crucially situated to shape political transitions on a broad scale, it is no wonder that getting agreement from those formerly at war with each other is difficult, and in many instances impossible.

By almost universal agreement, the most successful truth commission in the world is that of South Africa. Led by the cleric and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, and fully backed by Nelson Mandela, the first president of the country to be elected after the end of apartheid (but not backed by the governing political party, the African National Congress), South Africas TRC adopted societal transformation as one of its most important objectives. Although widely known (and often criticized) for granting amnesties to some of the apartheid regimes worst assassins and criminals, the TRC held hearings throughout the country involving enormous numbers of citizens, produced a massive documentary history of apartheid and human rights abuses, fought the battle to provide compensation to victims, and generally contributed to tolerance and reconciliation in the country. Consequently, the South African TRC is widely copied by those seeking to move beyond the past toward a more democratic future. Reconciliation and democracy are not synonymous, but without some degree of reconciliation, it is difficult for countries to put the violent conflicts in the past and agree that political competition will be limited to peaceful and democratic means.

SEE ALSO African National Congress; Apartheid; Collective Memory; Genocide; Human Rights; Justice; Justice, Social; Reparations; Slavery; Terror; Violence


Barkan, Elazar, and Alexander Karn, eds. 2006. Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Boraine, Alex. 2000. A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africas Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Cape Town and New York: Oxford University Press.

Gibson, James L. 2004. Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation? New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hayner, Priscilla B. 2002. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge.

James L. Gibson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Truth and Reconciliation Commissions." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Truth and Reconciliation Commissions." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (July 17, 2018).

"Truth and Reconciliation Commissions." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved July 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.