International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Tag Archives: truth commission

Truth and Reconciliation in Canada

One part of Canadian history that is not commonly talked about is the Indian Residential School system. This boarding school system was in place as a way to try and assimilate aboriginal people into “normal (white) society”. Canada was not alone in this practice
as schools like these also existed in the United States for many years. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was constituted and created by the Indian trc-final-reportResidential Schools Settlement. For years the aboriginal peoples of Canada have had to live with the consequences from the residential schools and finally this truth commission worked as a conduit for healing and truth. The goals of the Commission are to acknowledge the schools and their impacts and consequences, to provide a safe and culturally appropriate setting for former students  and their parents to come forward, to promote awareness of the IRS system, to create a historical record, produce and submit to the Parties of the Agreement report and lastly to support commemoration of former IRS students. The final report of the Commission is to be released in December of this year. Seeing how the United States system was so parallel to Canada it will be interesting to see if there is a future for a commission here in the states. *Pictured is Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair shaking hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau*


Kenyatta apologizes to Kenyan public for past wrongs

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya delivered an official apology to the Kenyan public during a state of the nation address this past Thursday. He apologized for the wrongs committed by his own government and of governments past, mentioning the post-election violence of 2007-2008, as well as the 1984 massacre of hundreds of Kenayan-Somalis.

The International Criminal Court just recently dropped charges against President Kenyatta for warcrimes committed during the period of post-election violence because of a lack of evidence and cooperation by the Kenyan government. But, the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Kenya “recommended that the president apologize to the public within six month after receiving it. Kenyatta received the report on May 2013”.

During his speech, Kenyatta announced that he had requested that the Ministry of Finance set up a fund of $110 million to be used throughout the next three years for “restorative justice”. President Kenyatta has yet to announce what exactly he plans for the fund to do or accomplish, but it is his first public apology for the crimes committed following his election.

The apology earned Kenyatta a standing ovation from the members of Kenyan parliament, although the reactions of the public have been mixed. Some do not accept the apology at all, while the majority tend to feel that it is “better late than never”. Apologies can provide the acknowledgement of past atrocities that is important for rehabilitation of a society and victims, but it will be interesting to see the true impact of Kenyatta’s statements, if any at all.

Political Pardons and the Promise of South Africa’s Truth Commission

This article discusses the South African President’s plan to pardon at least 149 “serious offenders” of Apartheid-era violence and potentially hundreds more.  This move would in many ways delegitimize the work of South Africa’s Truth Commission.  Under the TRC, perpetrators could either confess to their crimes, if the crimes were politically or racially motivated, apply for amnesty, or would face prosecution.  However, in practice, prosecution was largely an empty threat as very few ever faced charges.  Over 7,000 applied for amnesty, but only about 1,000 applications met the political motivation criterion and were granted amnesty.

With this legacy of unaccountability for the vast majority of perpetrators, the pardons currently considered by the South African government would exacerbate this problem.  Not only does it directly contradict the threat of prosecution for perpetrators made by the TRC, most concerning is the impact on the victim community.  Starting in 2007 when former President Mbeki created a Special Dispensation on Political Pardons, the pardon process has been conducted entirely in secret without any victim participation.  Pervious pardons have included high level police commissioners and those guilty of serious crimes including serial killings and bombings.  There have been many complaints from groups in civil society and victim communities, but the government has failed to make the pardon process more transparent, tarnishing the legacy of reconciliation and restoration the Truth Commission attempted to establish.

Leader of Bosnian Serbs Calls for Srebrenica Truth Commission

Milorad Dodik, president of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is calling for a new international truth commission for the Srebrenica massacre. Dodik views what happened in Srebrenica as a “huge crime” that has resulted in “a big political problem.” According to him, propaganda has wrongly portrayed all Serbs as the murderers in the massacre. In Dodik’s mind, the Srebrenica killings were “an act of cowardice” contrary to the knightly way in which Serbs always had carried themselves.

Dodik’s push for a new international truth commission for Srebrenica is interesting, given his history of denying that the Srebrenica massacre by Bosnian Serbs was genocide, even though international and Bosnian courts ruled it as such.

Yet what is even more interesting than Dodik’s apparent change of heart as to the severity of what happened in Srebrenica many years ago, is the reaction of victims’ groups to the possibility of yet another commission. Such groups argue that court verdicts have already well established what occurred in Srebrenica, questioning why a new commission needs to be created to go over the facts yet again. Hajra Catic, president of the Women of Srebrenica association, thinks that Dodik is just trying to rewrite the history of Srebrenica, as he is displeased with what commissions have established.

These developments lead me to question whether truth commissions are always valuable for a society that has suffered such massive abuses. While truth, as an ideal, may be something quite valuable and worth pursuing, we must consider the effects that reliving experiences has on victims and their families. Perhaps survivors and families involved with Srebrenica are tired of going through the trauma of what they experienced and would rather have the digging stop. Moreover, how valuable would another truth commission be when so many court verdicts, in addition to a former commission, have already well-established the facts of what occurred? Is Dodik seeking to establish a new truth commission for the betterment of the survivors and their families, or is it a political attempt to grab the media’s attention, as some critics believe it to be? Not only does Dodik’s push for a new truth commission bring up questions about the intrinsic value of yet another commission, but it also brings into light how politics and state interests may be involved in decisions to establish and support them.

For the full story, click here.

Edmonton: A year of reconciliation

This week marks the one year anniversary since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in Edmonton.This commission was set up over 5 years ago in order to investigate what happened in the residential schools that were set up to “eliminate parental involvement  in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children” across Canada. Following the truth commission, Mayor Don Iveson declared the first year following the commission as the “year of reconciliation”. In its efforts towards reconciliation the city of Edmonton set  three goals in order to improve relations with indigenous residents. One of its goals included creating more spaces for the celebration of aboriginal culture. By creating such spaces the government is ensuring that the aboriginal population in Edmonton has access to their culture and their identity. It allows for children to connect with their aboriginal heritage and furthermore it allows for the indigenous people to do cultural awareness training. This is important in achieving reconciliation because the residential schools significantly damaged the indigenous culture’s development, so by doing this it is a form of reparation for the damages done. Specifically in Edmonton, the government is working with indigenous people in order to build a sweat lodge. A sweat lodge is a place in which people can pray, meditate, teach or even host community gatherings. In helping build this type of space the government is acknowledging the victims due to the nature and purpose of the structure. As we discussed in class, truth commissions, more specifically the recommendations can bring about reparations to the victims and families through the elicited responses and actions after the release of the report. Luckily in the Canadian case, the findings of the commission have been well received and the government in conjunction with the indigenous community have worked together towards reconciliation by not only memorializing the past but also looking forward in sustaining and promoting aboriginal culture of the future.

South Africa’s “Prime Evil” Released on Parole

Eugene de Kock, a notorious apartheid death-squad leader in South Africa during the 1980’s and early 90’s, was granted parole on Friday January 30th after over two decades in prison. De Kock “is believed to have been responsible for more atrocities than any other man in the efforts to preserve white rule” in South Africa, and was arrested in 1994 for charges of murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping, to name a few. Known throughout South Africa as “Prime Evil”, due to his incredibly violent reputation, de Kock was sentenced to 212 years in prison for his extensive list of crimes. But, at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, established to “unearth crimes committed by both sides”, de Knock confessed to many of his crimes and led authorities to the remains of many of South Africa’s “disappeared”. This cooperation, as well as the “interests of nation building and reconciliation”, were the two reasons cited for de Kock’s release on parole.

As one New York Times article stated about his granted freedom, “It was arguably the greatest single act of mercy to emerge from the anguished debate in South Africa over reconciliation and justice.” The response of the local and international communities have been mixed. Some believe that de Kock’s release is a part of the necessary forgiveness in order to rebuild society, while others believe that reconciliation cannot be found through essentially pardoning a violent and ruthless murderer. This case brings up even more questions about the right way to find “reconciliation” and move on as a society, while still recognizing atrocities and perpetrators for what they are.

The Power of Truth

In “Truth Skepticism: An Inquiry into the Value of Truth in Times of Transition,” Erin Daly captured the powerlessness associated with truth. Most articles we have read prior seem to paint the truth as a panacea for the suffering felt by victims of gross human rights violations. According to them, somehow, knowing the truth will bring peace and relief to the individuals that have lost their rights and possibly their loved ones to an unjust regime.

In reality, the truth brings back memories of hurt and suffering for victims; it highlights their status as the victimized. While it can bring closure to those who wondering about forced disappearances, it does little to those who have been wronged. The truth is by no means a cure-all. In fact, the truth has been known to disrupt stability, and is one of the reasons there is little national cooperation with the International Tribunals we have previously studied. The truth is a concept simultaneously powerful and powerless. It is powerful in that the search for truth can disrupt the legitimacy of a regime tending to repairing prior violations, yet it is powerless in giving victims the rights that were taken from them or a new life. To individuals stuck in a stagnant transitional government, the truth is only an intangible concept reminding them of the past, doing nothing to propel them forward.

Daly ascertains that truth is worthless without accountability; trials and amnesties following the unveiling of abuses past. Perpetrators don’t fear the truth; they fear the accountability that they could be forced to take as a result of the truth-seeking process. That is when the truth becomes powerful: when it is attached to a punitive process, a deterrent from future infringements upon human rights. Although in an ideal world, individuals would be at peace with the truth, in our very real world, individuals seek someone to blame. It is a natural and psychological for their to be justice and punishment taken against someone who so vehemently violated the rights of another. Therefore, without accountability and retributive trials, the truth is worthless. It is a fact that might bring a modicum of relief to a wronged individual.

Amy Biehl

I know that we have yet to touch up on the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission of South Africa, but I studied this case in two different classes last semester and I have a particular interest in the Amy Biehl case.  Amy Biehl was an American student studying the lives of women in South Africa.  She was against apartheid and wanted to help the community.  One day a group of South African students beat her, stoned her, and stabbed her to death because she was white and they saw her as an oppressor. 

In the documentary, Long Night’s Journey into Day, you can see a part of the amnesty hearings for her accused killers and also get to meet her parents.  The young men were sentenced to some time in jail (I am not sure of the specifics) but only served about five years of their term before being granted amnesty.  Surprisingly this was also the wish of Amy’s parents since they knew apartheid was the root cause of their daughter’s murder.  The young men, as can be read here, are now older, with families, and they work for the local charity Amy’s parents created.  They are still close with the family and regret killing Amy specifically, but do not regret killing in general since the political tensions in that time called for violence. 

I have always found this case extremely interesting because it really speaks to what we will be discussing in these coming weeks: the benefits and weaknesses of truth commissions.  This case alone shows a great strength in the South African Truth and Reconcilliation Commission, but watching the views presented in the documentary Long Night’s Journey into Day shows many differing views.

Truth Commissions: “The Whole Truth and as Much Justice as Possible”

The role of truth commissions in transitional justice has evolved over the decades from being a second best option to trials, to what some scholars (Minow) would call a “middle way between vengeance and forgiveness,” and to a necessary complement to trials or even better than trials.  Many truth commissions have been perceived by the international community as a success – notably the South African TRC and East Timor’s CAVR.  So this leaves us with a few questions to ponder…..

1) Should victims have a right to truth?

2) What are the baseline measures we should use to evaluate a truth commission?

3) Do the benefits of a truth commission to victims and to society justify the use of amnesties? Under what circumstances?

4) Regarding the “Cradock 4” case in the documentary, Long Night’s Journey Into Day, do you think Eric Taylor should have been denied amnesty? UPDATE on Cradock 4 prosecutions

5) Does the U.S. need a truth commission to uncover the abuses in the Iraq War? The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof thinks so.