International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

The Right to Truth

South Africa TRC hearing. Photo @SundayTimes

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) currently has an interesting online campaign to mark the UN”s  International Day for the Right to the Truth on March 24th. Given we are currently in the middle of course section on truth commissions this is a good opportunity to explore the issue and the campaign material provided by ICTJ.

ICTJ’s multimedia campaign is called “Can We Handle the Truth?”  They present five different aspects of pursuit of truth about past abuses – the ongoing search for the missing, memorialization efforts, and the use of truth commissions, court proceedings, and documented evidence to establish truth – in five countries: Kenya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lebanon, Colombia, and Indonesia.

As we know, many mechanisms of transitional justice seek to provide truth to victims of gross human rights violations. Both knowledge and acknowledgment have justice and reconciliation value, and particularly in societies where this is a pervasive sense of denial about the crimes. Please take the time to look through the campaign’s photographs, videos, and information and share your thoughts.  Here are some questions to consider:

1) Is it controversial to suggest that victims have a “right” to the truth?

2) What kind of justice mechanisms best ensure this right to the truth? Trials, truth commissions, and memorials all provides different kinds of truth.

2) Are there circumstances in which states can justifiably withold the truth? For example, what if the truth threatens the stability of a country or regime? What if the truth is too traumatizing for victims and perpetrators?

Feel to just comment generally on the material and topic as well.


2 responses to “The Right to Truth

  1. rmalesky March 27, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I think that the truth is an incredibly important tool for recovery, acceptance, grievance, and overal healing. Without knowing the truth of what occurred, I believe it is impossible for survivors to really be able to move past that as a stage in the process of healing is acceptance. It is difficult to say, though, whether states have a responsibility to give that truth specifically in cases where that truth may cause instability or potentially more difficulties. So I suppose what I am trying to say is that every survivor has the right to the truth in regards of their own personal recovery however the responsibility of giving that truth does not necessarily exist in every case. I believe there is an important distinction between the rights and responsibilities of people and states. States do have the outright responsibility of protecting their people and if in the case of an atrocity the right to the truth infringes on the safety and security of those people, the government must still recognize their responsibility to protect the people first. The right to the truth does exist however the right does not have to be immediate and I do feel its important to exercise a sense of maturity and responsibility of when to release that truth for those who have suffered.

    I believe this campaign touches upon these ideas without explicitly saying so. They definitely recognize that the duty of giving the truth relies on said governments via many different paths. (Truth commissions, memorialization, etc.) I think the campaign is also making a point to ask states respect the right to the truth and recognize the atrocities on behalf of the survivors/victims.

    Overall, a right to the truth exists. One cannot heal without knowing exactly what happened but Governments owe those people (and to the people who committed crimes as well, as they too can be victims) security and if the truth significantly threatens that, the truth needs to wait until a time when security and stability exists.

  2. aboampon March 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    I think it is controversial to suggest that victims have a right to know the truth, but I also think this is the correct stance to take. This question ties in with the 2nd question of whether there is a time and place for withholding the truth, and it’s in my opinion that there isn’t because I believe truth is a right. Obviously, it is not always easy/ the easiest to provide victims with the truth but I definitely think it is owed to them. I think truth should definitely be considered as a “right,” because truth serves as the basis for both of the major forms of justice (retributive, restorative). You cannot punish someone if you do not know the truth, and it would be hard for me to forgive someone if I did not have all the facts placed before me.
    Although I consider myself to be someone who favors retributive justice over restorative (largely because I’ve grown up in US, a sort of crime and punishment society ) I do not necessarily think trials are the best way to the truth. It would seem that if a probable perpetrator knew they were to be punished based on their statements they would try to paint themselves in the best light, and this would not lead to the truth. It seems that truth commissions, when held properly, provide the best method towards truth.
    As for the last question I think that there is always a right to truth. But this right is the victims. So just because you have the right to truth does not mean you have to utilize it. Meaning just having the option can be enough sometimes. For instance, the government/ court system/ the truth commission should have all of the facts of an atrocity, but the victim should have the “right” to choose whether or not he or she wants to hear it. However, if a government is withholding the truth without being asked to do so by the victims for reasons of stability, I believe that in unacceptable.
    I think the content provided by the ICTJ is very informative. This topic is so interesting, especially coming from a western society which doesn’t seem to put much value in the truth, and kind of skips right to justice. I think the phrase “dignity of the victims” says it all. It’s completely disrespectful to be lied to or for there to be gaps in information surrounding these atrocities, this fact alone should stimulate others to consider truth as a right.

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