International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Tag Archives: TRC

Pardon for Peace?

After years of racism and Apartheid in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for South Africa put forth a legitimate effort to ejacob-zuma-1ducate South Africans and the world about what had occurred, as well as begin to begin to serve Justice to those who were directly impacted by the institution. Of the 7,000 people who have applied for pardon’s from the new South African government over 5,000 of them were rejected, which demonstrated South Africa’s rigid concept of justice and uncompromising stance on how to best reconcile and deal with the atrocities of the past. The current President, Jacob Zuma however, may cause a shift in this culture. South Africa currently has over 900 pending pardon requests for past offense, 149 of which President Zuma is considering pardoning. The TRC often allows pardons for people who admit to their past crimes; however, this is usually through a process in which the victims of the criminals have some participation. President Zuma is considering beginning to pardon portions of the remaining 926 pardon requests through secret processes, which completely disregard the participation of the victims because he sees it as a necessary step towards reconciliation. Although moving past apartheid may be a step for reconciliation, is makeshift justice really the way to allow a country to be at peace?


James Dawes’ “Evil Men” – Representation of Human Cruelty

Yesterday I attended James Dawes’ lecture on his book, Evil Men. The event was sponsored by UChicago’s Human Rights Department and attending the talk has broadened my perspective on human rights issues to consider input from fields outside of political science. In fact, Dawes is an English professor and his book is summarized below:

“Presented with accounts of genocide, we ask how people could bring themselves to commit such horrendous acts. Drawing on the firsthand interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) that inform his recent book Evil Men (Harvard, 2013), Dawes will explore what motivates atrocity and how it can be stopped.”

My initial reaction to the idea of Truth Commissions was puzzlement over how something I perceive to be a deeply personal experience (coming to terms with trauma) can be experienced through a political, public mechanism such as truth commissions. How does talking about their crimes make perpetrators repentant? How does talking about their trauma relieve victims of some of their burdens? Mendez notes that there is an obligation to document war crimes but is there an un-fillable gap between a survivor’s truth and public knowledge?

Dawes expresses his concern for exposing the private space of trauma through representing atrocities. He gave the example of photojournalists who document these conflict zones and massacres. The “image of horror can have an allure” that calls on the human attraction to horror. Consider a car accident on the side of the road. How many drivers slow down to drive past, perhaps hoping to catch a peek of some macabre scene? How can representations of evil avoid making a “pornography of evil?”

Though Dawes brings up many paradoxes in representing evil, the one often overlooked paradox that builds the foundation of arguments for or against Truth Commissions is the paradox of trauma. On one hand we must represent atrocities, but on the other, we must not represent atrocities. Dawes does not cite reasons of political calculus or pragmatic barriers of funding, but instead focuses on the philosophical nature of traumatic events. He argues that it is impossible to transform a traumatic experience into words since trauma itself is something so beyond ordinary human perceptions that one does not even truly experience it. The traumatic event is too traumatic to be conscious or intelligible; it is in-cognitive. Dawes cites the sentiments of Holocaust survivors, many of whom remark that their experience of the Holocaust is like a gap in their being, something that cannot be understood. Dawes takes this as evidence for trauma being an assault on meaning and this cannot be transcended. In a way, representing trauma through words or art or speech is a betrayal because it suggests that one can restore what is in-comprehensible with art. But on the other hand, one must represent trauma as it is worse to be silent.

Another important paradox Dawes cites that directly relates to Truth Commissions is the paradox of confession. Dawes makes a point about the nature of confession and its compatibility with local traditions. During his research with Japanese war criminals, a colleague urged him to re-evaluate his use of the word ‘confession’. ‘Confession’, the term, implies psychoanalysis, Western thought, forgiveness. When the Japanese war criminals use the term, are they even talking about the same thing? Are they thinking of Confucian ideals? The same could be asked of all non-Western contexts where confession is used as a means to achieve reconciliation. Additionally, confession is a power relation. The listener is not just the locator, but a person who has the power to decide how to transcribe perpetrators confession, what to do with the confession. This made me think of truth commissions who use a mixture of international and local commissioners. What is the effect of the “Western, educated, rich commissioner” on the confession of perpetrators? Confessions, especially at truth commissions, are performances with actors, stages, and scripts that offers perpetrators an opportunity to trade in a sinful past for a forgiving present. Thus, we should be suspicious of remorse given these factors. In a way, truth commissions could indirectly pressure and insist that victims to forgive for the sake of the “greater good” of national reconciliation.


I think that Dawes’ insight from an English and Philosophy background can inform the broader understanding of the merits and pitfalls of Truth Commissions. It’s important to remember that in the midst of all these pragmatic problems with funding, policy, and physical enforcement, truth commissions and responses to human rights violations deals with the core of what it means to be human. Being aware of these paradoxes (there are many more than I mentioned) can better inform policy makers on their actions. To what degree do you agree or disagree?


Here’s a review of his book if anyone’s interested in learning more:


Malema and the Future of post-TRC South African Leadership

Julius Malema, an extremely controversial and charismatic politician in South Africa, has had the corruption case filed against him postponed due to the inclusion of an additional count of racketeering. His lawyers claim the case is political, the result of a high-profile falling-out between Malema and his erstwhile political mentor, current president Jacob Zuma.

Malema is a mere 31 years of age, but has already been hailed, even by Zuma, as the “future leader” of South Africa. Before he was exiled from the African National Congress (ANC) party, he was the president of its Youth League, the activist youth wing of the party founded in part by Nelson Mandela and known for its frequent strikes and protests during the apartheid era.

Malema’s case is an interesting one, and a story that could be an ominous indication of the effects of state-run and politicized transitional justice processes. Malema’s late childhood and early adulthood coincided with the airing of the TRC; he is a part of the new South Africa, a product of the reconciliation and reparation process that has consumed the country after the fall of apartheid. For better or worse, he is of a generation that was molded by the narrative of the ANC’s triumph over apartheid and the TRC’s hybrid method of justice.

To witness his history of corruption and frequent hate speech, then, is to witness firsthand the possible drawbacks of a reconciliation process that so vividly illustrates the evil of the apartheid regime. Revenge, even when perpetrators are federally prosecuted, is still sought. Malema has been notorious for his hate speech against whites. He has, in various instances, called for South African whites to surrender their land, led a rally on a college campus while chanting “shoot the Boer”, and consistently refused to apologize for his provocative speech. Despite these incidents, he is often seen as an extremely popular symbol for the poor and disadvantaged black electorate.

In our Iliff reading on grassroots transitional justice, the dominance of state authority in many TJ processes is heavily discussed; specifically, there is an incentive in such systems to establish the authority of the new, transitional government, which could lead to an equally oppressive regime.

The TRC is not immune to these criticisms. Though the model for such truth commissions and hybrid TJ processes, it was still undoubtedly a project that in part aimed to legitimize the authority and message of the ANC and its post-apartheid agenda. Previous blog posts have discussed such contradictions in allegedly apolitical justice systems. Is Malema an outlier, or are his actions in part influenced by the TJ process South African implemented? Does his hate speech and radical, often anti-white views have any bearing at all on how the ANC’s narrative was presented to the South African population, both in the TRC and in other more localized TJ instances?

Long Night’s Journey Into Day

There was one moment in this film that struck me in terms of the mediatory role the TRC has acted out. The Goniwe widow points out that she is not here for Eric Taylor to redeem himself; rather, she says something to the effect of the TRC being able to fulfill that duty. Her statement underscores two issues – the fact that there are limitations to reconciliation and who should be granting redemption, if any. I found it interesting that the Cradock 4 widows had legal representation in the Taylor hearing; it suggested to me  that the widows had some involvement in preventing Taylor’s amnesty. Nonetheless, the victims lose the personal choice of granting redemption (unlike the Timorese case where victimised parties agreed to reconciliation) in the pursuit of collective justice.  Is it fair to override the victims’ desire in order to obtain peace? At any rate, it is important to to consult the victims and whether they are permissive of a third party granting amnesty as some victims might not ever be psychologically ready to forgive but may recognise the cognitively dissonant unfairness in denying a chance for perpetrators to grow and move on.

On another note that speaks to the effectiveness of the TRC, Amnesty hearing transcipts are accessible online,  including those of the Cradock 4 case.

Transitioning in Form and Function: SA

As we move toward discussions of TRCs, we begin to delve in to the power of speech itself. Much of the TRC model, particularly in South Africa, is about an airing of grievances–a public display of truth that is very much grounded in a performative act. I want to focus this post on the possibility that performative acts, while significant, can also have the ability to function as performances: lacking genuine backing if the actors decide to change their roles. The case of South Africa, for me, is particularly illustrative. What is widely hailed as a hallmark of the “truth” model, the TRC in South Africa stands as indicative of the disjunction between appearance and reality in post-transition societies. I think that is evident in contemporary politics in South Africa: rampant corruption, immense rates of poverty and crime, and a dissuasion from full multi-party politics. Yet this is not compatible with the discursive structures of the post-apartheid nation. To the contrary, the South African system features a remarkable constitution and constitutional court that exclaim liberal values far greater than much of the globe, including the US. It seems there is a reliable form of rights-respecting governance in modern SA, but the function hasn’t necessarily followed. Why is that? Is it due to personal politics of cronyism temporarily in power? Are there further structural advancements necessary? More broadly, how can we supplement TRCs with insurance that the future government will not return to past practices. It is not enough to denounce the past,  we must find a way to prepare for the future.

United States of Transitional Justice

The United States is no friend of the ICC, sure, but it has been supportive and instrumental in other forms of transitional justice (including independent tribunals), not to mention the NGO leadership from the US. Yet, I continually wonder about the missing legacy of transitional justice within the US itself. As we have studied, mechanisms such as TRCs can be essential to establishing a common understanding of a legacy of mistreatment: an understanding that is occasionally critical to establishing a stable human-rights bound culture. On the flip-side, it is thought that these processes might re-open wounds, shaking national stability and driving groups apart in to “victims” and “perpetrators”. When it comes to our own history, I wonder how addressing our own injustices might affect us now. The mass slaughter of Native-Americans, the extensive slavery of Africans and their descendants, or the internment of Japanese-Americans all seem to be topics that our national mythology has only briefly addressed. Are there benefits to revisiting these unfortunate periods? Would a stronger congressional acceptance of abuses perpetrated against native tribes affect our current treatment of minorities as a whole? Would further revealing to the public view the extent of slavery improve our understanding of lasting economic inequality? Or, on the other hand, might these measures only propose racial divisions of a “forgotten” past. Can we still “transition” from the past?

Gender-specific Reparations

I just came across this article on al Jazeera, on Rape in South Africa. The main context of the article is a recent video of a rape that went viral, and then was eventually presented to the police. They discuss South Africa as the ‘Rape Capital of the World’ and announce the statistic that in South Africa a woman is raped every 26 seconds. They do a really good job in the article characterizing the issue of rape [in South Africa] as an unspoken ‘war’ with hundreds of unspoken victims, unseen by the justice system. 

There are also a lot of great videos included in the post; what I found had specific relevance to our class was the “1in9” video. It’s a video of a group of women protesting that Zuma was aquitted on a rape charge. They emphasize that they are remembering the woman who was exiled and all other rape survivors who have been “secondly victimized” by the courts. They emphasize that they are there because of an unrecognized justice claim. 

So here we see that the 1in9 protest is filling a symbolic function (remembering past victims) while attempting to get symbolic recognition of the controversy, and then eventually material recognition – the lifting of the exile. 

Since we’ve just been looking at the importance of gender-specific reparations, I felt this article on (largely) the state of women in South Africa post-Apartheid was a great reflection on the importance of reestablishing civic norms for everyone. Here we have a case of what seems to be large-scale human rights violations happening largely with impunity. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission undoubtedly set the standard, but did they do enough for acknowledging crimes of sexual violence? (And thus reestablishing the norm that it wasn’t acceptable to commit crimes of sexual violence, and giving effected women back civic agency?)

Reconciliation and Humor?

The article linked below concerns reconciliation on the Ivory Coast where a traditional practice called Toukpe is being used to ease ethnic tensions. The practice of Toukpe incorporates humor where cultural and ethnic groups  joke and make fun of each other. Thus the tensions are trivialized and expelled, restoring moral values and behavior towards one another. Because this is a tradition along the Ivory Coast, it is becoming and effective practice for reconciliation. Although part of the reason this practice is working is because of it’s traditional roots, I wonder if humor can be used in other countries that are seeking reconciliation. Despite the gravity of crimes that TRCs deal with, complete emphasis on the tragedy poses the risk of being paralyzed within that state which only breeds and preserves resentment. Humor does have the ability to make things seem less serious, and that uplift may make it easier for people to enter into a more honest dialogue. In fact, the presence of humor would serve as an indicator that communities are in fact healing, and moving away from a violent and destructive past.  Do you think that humor could be a gateway in reconciliation beyond the cultural norms of  the Ivory Coast?