International Justice

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Tag Archives: truth commissions

Does America Need a Truth Commission?

blacklivesmatterGiven a history of race relations, marred in the past by slavery and in the present by discrimination, violence, and inequality, does America need a truth and reconciliation commission? Some people think so.

This article from the Carnegie Council  makes a case for it, citing the well known precedents set by the South African TRC, and lesser known truth commissions in Canada and Maine. This article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times also advocates for a truth commission, arguing “we as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life.” This CNN article bluntly exposes some the of the obstacles to creating a truth commission:

Ultimately the deepest objection to a racial truth and reconciliation process in America is that it would be hard. Hard to start and to finish. We Americans can be a bit lazy when it comes to messy civic and historical truths. We want our stories — and our Story — to have happy endings. We want reconciliation on the cheap.

This is uncomfortable and unfamiliar terrain for many of us who have not suffered from racism, yet are now confronted with storieslittle girl us flag of unjust shootings, reports of institutionalized racism, and debates about what and who constitutes “America.” But we have learned a few things from international experiences with truth and reconciliation. So, let’s discuss what a truth and reconciliation commission could and should look like here.

What types of violations should such a commission address? How can a commission seek both factual and social truths? How should we define “victims” and “perpetrators”, if at all? How can the commission be constructed, led, and its findings disseminated to enhance its credibility? What are the political and social obstacles to establishing a truth and reconciliation process? What have we learned about other truth commissions successes and failures that we can apply to the American context?



Transitional Justice in Nepal


On Tuesday, Nepal created two Commissions to investigate alleged human right abuses and disappearances during the country’s decade long civil war.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the South African Truth Commission set up after the apartheid, will look into potential human right abuses committed during the conflict, while the Commission on Enforced Disappearances will investigate the disappearances of 1300 people still missing 8 years after the conflict has ended.

The Nepali state and Maoist rebel groups have been accused of potential war crimes, including forced disappearances, unlawful killings, and sexual violence during the conflict that ended with a peace agreement in 2006. While both sides had agreed to look into potential abuses 6 months after the signing of the peace agreement, the Nepali government has failed to act, fearing harm to reconciliation in the country.

Despite the steps taken in recent days, victims have not been optimistic that the Commissions will be able to bring just for those effected, with some claiming that the Commissions will let perpetrators off the hook for their actions with “ambiguous wording”.

Should Syria have a truth commission?


This editorial presented the argument that Syria must have a truth commission in order to put Syria on the right path towards reconciling their nation from the horrors that it has endured in the last 40 years.  Talks in the Geneva II Conference on Syria are ongoing, however the author, Ayman Al-Yassini, does not hold the opinion that international justice will be enough.  The horrors that the Syrians have endured have stemmed for the environment of fear and insecurity that has recently been ended and was created by many intelligence agencies that oppressed the people and reported directly to President Bashar Assad, agencies that were given nearly free reign to arrest and detain who they please without giving information to the imprisoned.  In addition to the lack to a fair and speedy trial, evidence of torture and murder has been found in detention centers throughout the country.

Al-Yassini writes that only the public revealing of the truth in a truth commission will Syrians first be able to begin the process of accountability, and then of healing and reconciliation.  Al-Yassini adopts a relatively standard definition of truth commissions, writing that a truth commission “would provide justice for all victims, and would act as an effective form of retribution against the perpetrators of such crimes.”  However, he does not take into account the problems that have befallen truth commissions in the past.  Al Yassini claims that a truth commission will provide justice for all victims, yet rarely have truth commissions in the past been as inclusive.  How far is the Syrian government willing to go in terms of reconciliation? How much jurisdiction would the government have over the commission?  One of the criticisms of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is generally seen as the model for those to come, was that it paid little attention to crimes of violence.  In the case of the fatal tortures of youth and women, would a Syrian Truth Commission take the measures it needs to?

Ultimately, I think Al-Yassini’s editorial is a simple proposal that wasn’t thought out completely, but might be a good idea in getting Syria on the right track to peace.

“Lessons Learnt” Commissions in Sri Lanka

ImageSri Lanka is the new subject of an international justice inquiry due to the increased and discovery of mass crimes against humanity. Both the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government and army have come under fire for supposed crimes committed. The Economist published a piece on the increased scrutiny the Sri Lankan political regime has been placed under. According to the Red Cross, as many as 16,000 people are missing since 1990 and despite continued pressure, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not been wiling to look into the disappearances.

Even the United Nations has indicated their distrust of the Sri Lankan government and has called for investigations to be conducted, spearheaded by Navi Pillay, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights:

“On February 24th she released her draft report to the council, calling for an independent international inquiry, following an effort by experts sent in 2011 by the UN secretary-general. She says she is concerned at the government’s refusal to allow “a credible national process with tangible results”.”

Most actions taken by the government have been met with skepticism and the people are unwilling to trust Rajapaksa’s ‘commissions’. Interestingly, the government has already conducted a ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ and has suggested that a truth- and -reconciliation commission (similar to South Africa) be initiated as well. The goal of the LLRC was to obtain justice and provide information about the human rights violations that took place during the civil war. In the final report released after the LLRC, it was concluded that the Sri Lankan army did not commit mass atrocities during the civil war. Amnesty International released an article saying the LLRC did not meet its goals and was a bias war panel. Additionally, Amnesty said the LLRC did not go far enough in discussing human rights violations:

“But where it appears to really falter is in ignoring the serious evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of the laws of war by government forces, even though the report highlights the serious and systematic violations committed by the LTTE,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.”

This brings up an interesting new element to the concept of truth and reconciliation commissions. Is it preferable for governments to conduct such reports that discuss the overall issue and ‘lessons learned’. The Amnesty analysis did say that the LLRC report did provide interesting ideas for improvements on human rights issues in Sri Lanka that the government should take seriously. It is worth considering whether Lessons Learnt commission can work in tandem with a Truth and Reconciliation commission. Further, it is unclear whether can governments and regimes be trusted to release truthful reports that contains valid statistics and prosecute criminal parties that may be associated with the states.

Thus, it is interesting that the Sri Lankan government chose to conduct this commission but it seems that it was done more as a stalling tactic and also was not done to a high degree of accuracy; making both the international community and the Sri Lankan people lose faith in the government. It is likely that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would get a similar reception unless Rajapaksa’s administration is able to change the perception of the government around this issue drastically, which would also take away scrutiny of the international community and the UN.

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:


Does Age Matter?

AKM Yusuf, one of the top leaders of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami died February 9th. Yusuf was indicted May 12th, 2013 on 15 war crimes charges by the UN supported International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh set up in 2009 to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during Bangladesh’s war against Pakistan in 1971. According to a report entitled “A Country Full of Corpses,” published in 1971: “The extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, the atomic crisis of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massacre of Biafra, the napalm on Vietnam, all the great genocides of humanity have found a new equivalent: East Pakistan.” The tribunal was initially well received, but has since been accused of problems with fairness and transparency. Despite the problems with the trial, Yusuf’s part in the genocide has not been called into question. Recently his defense team argued that he should be granted bail immediately because of his age. Should the age of the defendant be taken into account? Should the year the crimes were committed in be taken into account? As we saw in the Khmer Rouge trials one of the defendants was acquitted because she had Alzheimer’s and wasn’t coherent enough to stand trial. Do victims receive justice if the defendant is 80+ years of age, sentenced to 40 years in prison, goes to jail for a year and then dies? I think that Yusuf’s death is just another example of the importance of alternative forms of justice, such as truth commissions and reparations. 


Sri Lankan criticisms of Truth Commissions

So far in class and in readings, it seems to me that we have heard generally positive things about truth commissions.  The Michael Humphrey article “International intervention, justice and national reconciliation: the role of the ICTY and ICTR in Bosnia and Rwanda” suggested that a truth commission be held in Rwanda “in order to promote the creation of a more inclusive political community that international and national trials have so far not achieved” (Humphrey 502).  This editorial from the Sri Lankan Times presents a decidedly different argument.

The author, Kishali Jayawardene, is one that has been severely disillusioned by Sri Lanka’s history with truth commissions, claiming that they appeared to be “manna from heaven” but in reality have been huge and expensive disappointments.  While the author admits that the 1994 Commissions of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearances of Persons made good recommendations, these recommendations were largely disregarded by the government except for the payment of token reparations.  Jayawardene accuses truth commissions of being wastes of public funds, of raising the expectations of citizens while duly ignoring their human rights’ claims, and of distracting the attention of the government from more important reforms.

While the author is clearly against the practice of truth commissions, it seems to me that he more has a problem with the way that they’ve been implemented, rather than the theory behind them.  In his conclusion, the author writes that, “Sri Lankan governments… are able to resort to these tactics time and time again and without challenge from this country’s so-called ‘intellectual’ community.”  The author fails to provide an alternative to truth commissions or a suggestion for how they might be improved, but ultimately I think it’s an interesting piece in that it shows the frustration that some have with such commissions.

The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

This news article describes the first experiences that people had in the United States’ first state-sponsored truth and reconciliation commission, which was held earlier this week.  I thought this article was particularly interesting because it showed that truth and reconciliation commissions can be helpful not only in matters of international justice but also civil/ historic justice.  Maine’s TRC is helping to uncover the stories of many Native American children who were removed from their homes and placed in white homes.  I think it’s a good step in accounting for the genocide of the Native American people, which is probably one of the saddest things in American history and simply isn’t talked about enough.

Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission

On November 3, 1979 Greensboro, North Carolina was witness to a violent act that displayed the racial tensions due to the evident presence of the Ku Klux Klan and lack of social justice for African Americans. On said day, a group of African American members of the Communist Workers Party had joined to march against the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in this area. The CWP was strongly involved in the defense of not solely workers issues but rather social issues at the time. In this case, the abuses on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan. On November 3rd, the CWP had began to organize themselves at a local housing project in order to begin the rally, shortly members of the American Nazi Party along with Ku Klux Klan members arrive to the area, and a shoot out ensued. While many claim that a CWP member was the first to open fire, other witnesses claim that it was a member of the American Nazi Party who started it all. While members from both sides were jailed after the event, a strong divide occurred marred the town of Greensboro for a long time. Not only had the town already been divided because of race issues, but due to this even the tension was no longer hidden, but outwardly displayed.

As a response to the Truth Commission in South Africa, residents from Greensboro initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005. The goal of the commission was geared towards “healing and reconciliation of the community, clarifying the confusion and reconciling the fragmentation caused by these events and their aftermath, acknowledging and recognizing people’s feelings, and helping to facilitate positive changes in social consciousness and community institutions”. In 2006 the Commission published a report of their findings while they state that “serious limitations in the resources available to us, as well as fear of and hostility toward our process have restricted our ability to review all the evidence available. The truth we have found is necessarily imperfect because new facts might later come to light that would demand new or altered conclusions. Indeed it is our hope that others who come after us will continue to perfect the collective truth of this event.” The Commission was seen as a success by others because it demonstrated how an issue that took place more than 30 years ago, was still having an impact in the present and action should be taken in order to correct the tension that still remained.

While the lack of significant economic support might appear to be a negative issue, this is the first ever recorded truth commission in the United State and it will be interesting if other communities may recur to these methods towards solving local issues. Dependency over the conventional judicial system predominates, however, this particular commission may serve as a testament that alternate ways to present justice do not infringe on issues of sovereignty and are viable ways towards achieving reconciliation. Even if arrests were made, it is evident that punitive measures do not solve the entire problem, other components must be brought in, and truth commissions present themselves as a good complimentary tool.

the final report may be found here under conclusions on the left side column:

“Think Again: International Courts”

I recently came across an extremely pessimistic article about international justice (the caption reads: “It’s time to abandon the false hope of international justice”). It’s from a few years ago, but I felt like it fit in nicely with what we have been discussing through the course thus far. It specifically hits on the ICTY and ICTR. The author claims that neither Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, nor Rwandans through the tribunals aided in the reconciliation process. Less than 36% of Rwandans thought it did promote reconciliation in 2002. She also points out that the justice process is long and expensive. Milosevic’s trial took years, prolonging the hatred in the hearts of many Serbs, and the ICTR took “10 years to complete the same number of trials that Nuremberg conducted in less than a year.”

The author also lacks faith in the truth-telling process, citing Spain and Mozambique as having been successfully reconciled by taking a “don’t look back” approach to resolving their issues. She then goes on to refute the claim that “Giving Amnesty to War Criminals Encourages Impunity.” If we look at South Africa and Mozambique, she says, we will find that while both implemented amnesties, the rule of law actually improved because the leadership was focused less on prosecuting and more on rebuilding. Politics may also have a greater effect on the rule of law than justice, she suggests. Kagame’s authoritarianism in Rwanda undermined the rule of law even though his government was prosecuting many convicted of war crimes.

Lastly, she claims that the world does not need the ICC. “We can predict that the ICC will be no more effective than the international courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in improving the lives of war-zone residents who are its primary stakeholders. That is, not very effective at all.”

She lacks solid empirical evidence in some areas and some of her fact-finding seems inadequate. (I am never a fan of researchers quoting some people they met on the ground and then extrapolating their answers as if they were representative of the entire population.) However, I feel like it’s a good measure to test what we’ve learned so far. If you support international justice, it may be worth going through her arguments and seeing if what we have read so far allows you to refute any, if not all, of her claims.

Transition into a New Brazil

Brazil’s National Truth Commission is currently investigating the role of the church throughout the military rule of 64 to 85. Established in 2011 by President Rousseff, the commission will be looking into whether the clergy committed any human rights violations in their support of the totalitarian regime. Viewing the coup as a move against the communist policies of Goulart, the church supported the military and allegedly helped set up the coup. Only when the members of the church themselves also started becoming victimized by the authorities did the alliance of the church shift. The case of the evangelical churches is also similar to that of the Catholic.

The change in their stance, beginning to support human rights defenses after being targeted themselves, obviously created resentment in the minds of the people as well. Which is why I think it is crucial for the investigation of the accountability of these individuals to be conducted. Although the commission does not hold the power to prosecute, military personnel and public officials are required, by its subpoena powers, to abide by its decisions. This process must be well-rounded for several reasons that we also established in class. As a first step, it is even singlehandedly vital for the whole truth surrounding the physical AND psychological harm of a period of 21 years to come out. Then, those who are, in fact, responsible must be identified, and tried, in an effort to fully understand all the perspectives involved, as well as to ensure no questions go unanswered. The said individuals, if found guilty, must face the necessary consequences to answer for their crimes. The investigation is therefore key to set a basis on which this process can be built, step by step, while the sufferers also receive the help necessary to adapt to their post-conflict life. The closure that is aimed as a result of a combination of these efforts is what the commission should pursue – and in the Brazilian case, it seems like the progression is, hopefully, on the right track.

Individual Responsibility and Collective Guilt

The Allison Bisset piece, Truth Commissions and Criminal Courts, addresses the difference between individualization of responsibility and collective moral guilt. The individualization of responsibility is primarily brought about though prosecution in trials and is thought to meet the “desire for revenge” of victims. More interestingly, Bisset says that the individualization of responsibility is thought to help alleviate inter-ethnic and religious tensions. It steers the blame away from collective groups that could potentially foster revenge and continued ethnic and national conflicts.
Bisset argues that truth commissions are more concerned with assigning institutional responsibility. If one of truth commissions’ primary aims is to establish a macro-truth and provide a picture of violations and institutions as a whole, then in cases of racial and ethnic conflict it seems that there is a very fine line between assigning a “collective guilt” and establishing a macro-truth. In these situations, do truth commissions undermine the trials objective to reduce cycles of blame and collective moral guilt?

An American Truth Commission

In class today, Professor Tiemessen said that there is a truth commission in the United States. This truth commission is the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Source). The GTRC investigated and described what had happened on November 9, 1979, when five members of a protest by the Communist Workers Party were shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members and the American Nazi Party. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission shows that truth commissions can take on cases both large and very small. It also emphasizes the importance of all the basic necessities of a truth commission that makes it successful, from initial research and truth finding to the final report. The final report of the GTRC can be found on their website:

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a testament to the need for truth. Even in a city of 250,000 people, the family of the victims and the city itself sought to find out what truly had happened on November 9, 1979. The Commission was able to firmly establish the roles that the police, KKK, the American Nazi Party, and the protesters of the Communist Workers Party played. There was also opposition to the GTRC: the mayor of Greensboro at the time of the massacre rejected the commission, and the city council was divided on the issue, only passing the commission when 6 voted in favor and 3 did not. It was also brought up that of the 6 that voted in favor, 3 were African Americans. Thus, it is fascinating to see how a truth commission that dealt with five deaths that happened on one day could face so many of the same issues that national-scale truth commissions also faced.

Truth Commissions as Political Tools

Like much of Latin America, Brazil experienced many political crises and transformations from the early 1900s through to the late 70’s. Pseudo republican governments, military dictatorships, and full dictatorships all held power at some time in the country. It was during these periods that torture, disappearances, unjustified jailing, and killings were all committed by those in power. The current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was an activist that was jailed and tortured in 1970. Intellectuals were jailed and many fled the country in fear of their government. In May, president Rousseff created a truth commission made up of seven people to help bring to light the truth of what happened to the more than 9000 people that were tortured and killed. The commission promises amnesty for those who come forward and is intended to give closure to many generations affected by these brutal regimes.

I find myself doubting whether this initiative will be truly helpful to those affected by the crimes committed; many are in their 60s and 70s now and even more have already died. Is this is more of a political move to boost the popularity and image of the current political system, particularly for a political party in an election year? We talk about the role of transitional justice being necessary and incredibly useful for helping a country that has just experienced awful atrocities move past these awful occurrences, but is a country as advanced, rich, and powerful as Brazil in a transitional period from oppression to democratic government forty years later? Can the purpose of truth commissions be perverted into a political tool for strengthening the leaders that came out of opposition movements? How important is the intention behind different forms of transitional justice?


Canada’s Truth Commission and the Trauma of Residential Schools

This is a really interesting Globe and Mail article  –“Hearings reopen old wounds for residential school survivor” – that details that background on the Canadian TRC and aboriginal residential schools. Here is a segment:

“I never realized the depth of my own story until I heard their stories,” said Mr. John, who stood back from the podium, tried to start speaking again, but couldn’t as the tears flowed. “It haunts me.”

Mr. John, who is the leader of B.C.’s largest aboriginal organization, spoke at the opening of the commission’s two-day stop in Victoria, which as many as 2,000 survivors and their families are expected to attend.  The gathering will include traditional ceremonies and survivor gatherings, as well as formal statements as the commission pursues its mandate of helping survivors heal and creating a complete historical record of Canada’s Indian residential school system.

The commission’s interim report, published in February, found Canadians know very little about aboriginal people and residential schools, and recommended schools teach about the physical and sexual abuse and neglect suffered at the schools….

Mr. John said the burden of the residential school system is having to come to terms with being part of a government and church system that was designed to erase aboriginal culture, spirit and way of life. “That is why this is a mixed-up place for many of us, this place we have to talk about,” he said.

“We were supposed to kill our languages, our cultures. We were that vehicle for which this was supposed to happen. That’s the burden we have to bear. It was through us that our languages were denied. But we were children and we didn’t know.”

The TRC should hopefully contribute to both greater knowledge of the abuses, also for the wider Canadian public, and acknowledgement for the victims.

TRC in Thailand

Our class has discussed the intricacies of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions this past week, and in our last class we touched on the role of victims in these processes.  This article deals with a TRC that is set up in Thailand and is entitled “Just Who is the reconciliation process supposed to serve?” I thought the name of the article was particularly interesting because of the purpose of a TRC is to discover knowledge, and does not always benefit the victims of crimes. The reconciliation process of TRC’s is probably the most emotionally difficult aspect because of the amnesty provisions that could be involved.

In this story, the relative of one of the victims is frustrated because of the governments efforts to speed up the reconciliation process for what she suspects are political motives rather than a genuine push for national reconciliation.  In my opinion the hardest part about TRC’s is trying to find the right balance between the rights of victims to know the truth, and the reconciliation.  Sometimes the emotions and feelings of those who have suffered are overlooked for the sake of speeding up the reconciliation process.

Impunity Gap: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a notable case of an “impunity gap.” It’s widely acknowledged that crimes were committed by both sides, the government and Tamil rebels, in Sri Lank’as civil war. Yet, there is no domestic political will to hold perpetrators accountability and the international community has shirked their responsibility to call for justice. (You may also want to read a past blog post of mine on this topic.)

Watch the controversial documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” by Channel 4 and do some quick online research. You can respond with you general thoughts on the film but also try to address one or more of the following questions.

a) What are the atrocities that a transitional justice mechanism should address?

b) What is known about who is “most responsible” for atrocities?

c) What have the victims demanded in terms of justice? Is there support for a tribunal, truth commission, reparations? Is there strong domestic pressure from victims and civil society?

d) Unlike other cases of atrocities in civil war, the United Nations Security Council and Human Rights Council have failed to adequately pressure the Sri Lankan government to mete out accountability. What explains this failure? What role has the UN played so far?

e) What type of transitional justice mechanism(s) would be most appropriate in this context? And who should implement it – the UN or the Sri Lankan government?

(Please provide links to any of the information you can across in your research).

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.

Establishing an authoritative record

I have always assumed that Truth Commissions are welcomed and respected by victims of atrocities such as genocide. But, after reading Daly’s “Truth Skepticism” I have begun to re-evaluate my assumptions.

One of the goals listed for truth commissions was to “establish an authoritative record” (The list included: helping victims, making recommendations for reform, promoting accountability and reconciliation, and drawing the line between past and present/future). Out of the entire list, one would think that an authoritative record would be the most cut and dry goal. To me, it sounds like a factual account of events that transpired, which would be universally accepted.

Daly proposes that the word “truth” is too relative and that one can find many “truths” when examining the same event. The truth that the ICC officials find might not be the same truth that the government of Sudan finds, or the people of Sudan find. Even if there wasn’t the problem of “multiple truths”, an ICC official still cannot put into words the suffering of someone who has survived a genocide. A document cannot paint the picture of watching your husband die or erase the guilt of abandoning your child.

Despite the short-comings of a truth commission, I like Daly’s proposal to instead have public education programs about a nation’s history.




“The Redemption of General Butt Naked”

No joke….this is a real person, and a perpetrator of extreme atrocities.

The above is the title of a documentary film that is playing at Sundance this year that chronicles of the life of a former Liberian warlord who is responsible for murdering thousands amidst a civil war that was rife with child soldiers and fueled by blood diamonds. At Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission he confessed his responsibility for the killing of approximately 20,000 people.  He is now a Christian preacher who renounces violence, helps to socially reconstruct his community, and seeks redemption and  forgiveness.

This fascinating Daily Mail article from Nov, 2010 details the story and asks whether or not it is possible to forgive the “most evil man in the world” and provide justice to victims. And an interesting short BBC segment on General Butt Naked available on YouTube.

We’re not yet into our readings and discussions on truth commissions and related topic of reconciliation, but it’s an interesting case of different conceptions and expectations of justice.