International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Tag Archives: truth

Turkey’s Peace Process Lacking Truth and Reconciliation Initiatives

Turkey has been seeking a peaceful resolution to the country’s internal conflict that ensued between the Republic of Turkey and various Kurdish insurgent groups which have been demanding either their own independent nation or improved rights for Kurds within Turkey. The president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but within these negotiations there has been a lack of conversations about truth and justice for the atrocities committed against the Kurdish civilians during the 30 year long conflict in which 30,000-40,000 Kurds were killed and over a million displaced. In the article, it states how the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission but how despite this being a demand of various human rights groups as well as the family and relatives of the victims, this has “rarely been the subject of public debate in Turkey”. It goes on further by saying that Turkey is known to suppress the memories of past atrocities which makes the road to reconciliation more complicated and challenging as the list of atrocities continues to pile up. Truth can be very destabilizing to a country. More specifically the truth could destabilize the Turkish government since the state continues to use violence and furthermore many of the atrocities that have occurred in Turkey have been interconnected which makes it especially difficult for Turkey to deal with its past. Despite having an increased demand for truth in human rights groups and families of the victims, there really hasn’t been any collective widespread public pressure on the government to pursue the truth. In the article it explains that this is due to the normalization of state violence and the “political apathy and cynicism arising from the disbelief in the justice system.” Also in due part to the state’s denial and official discourse that has legitimized this violent past and present. As we discussed in class and as is discussed in this article, sometimes the truth that is recognized by the state is a limited truth since its boundaries are defined by the state and fuel’s the state’s narrative. Is is important to recognize the value of truth in the reconciliation process while at the same time acknowledge its shortcomings. In Turkey’s case it will be important to link truth and justice for its past crimes but also end ongoing violence against the Kurds in order to achieve peace and stability.

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.

Archbishop Oscar Romero and the International Day for the Right to Truth


Today is the International Day for the Right to Truth, created to help honor the victims of human rights violations and to further the norms of truth telling and justice. The day is also used to recognize and remember the work and values of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 after speaking out against human rights abuses in El Salvador.

Romero was originally considered a conservative priest, but began to change his attitudes after witnessing the plight of the landless poor in El Salvador, along with government violence against socially committed members of the community. Romero was able to use the moral authority of his position to speak for the poor in El Salvador, who had been subject to violence, abuse, and injustice as a result of the country’s civil war.

Publicly denouncing human rights abuses in El Salvador led to his assassination in 1980; he was shot dead while delivering mass in a chapel. The UN created the International Day for the Right to Truth in 2010 to honor Romero and others who lost or devoted their lives to the protection of human rights for all.

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.

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:


Defense of Relevance

The topic of relevance was highlighted in an interesting article that Professor Tiemessen retweeted titled “Truth commission taking feds to court over access to records: CP.” The article addresses the ongoing Canadian truth commission regarding past corrective residential schools. Further, the article addresses the fight to release a multitude of government records that allegedly are vital to a successful the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which includes record keeping for reconciliation purposes.

The article states,

“Under the agreement, the government of Canada and churches are obliged to provide all “relevant documents in their possession or control” to the commission. Court filings show years of government squabbling over the word “relevant.”

I found this to be an interesting point that can be applied to many other cases discussed over the length of the course. What standards are used to measure the relevance of documents, information, etc.? There seems to be a divide between collecting information between verbal and written submissions. While studying the truth commissions of South Africa, one of the requirements in applying for amnesty was that the entire truth must be told. This was measured against the facts known about the crime. On the other side, the above article explores the notion of the release of “relevant” Government documents and that the State has hid behind the shield of relevance when asked to release documents. The documents are not only being sought after for the truth commissions, but also as, “part of the commission’s mandate is to help in a process of reconciliation, while yet another is the “creation of a legacy” that includes collection of records, taking statements from those involved, and classifying and preserving the materials.” In the end, the article states “it took until November 2011 — about six years after Ottawa first signed the settlement in principle — for the government to hand over the bulk of what’s been provided so far.”

Is relevance a legitimate argument for withholding documents? This is a similar argument to those commonly made by lawyers in court rooms and thus it should not be a surprising that governments also use this gray area to fight larger conflicts. This article was an interesting example of the defense of relevance.

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.

The Meaning of “I’m Sorry”

In considering the efficacy of truth commissions, the literature continually touches on the potential healing effects vs. re-traumatizing effects of “truth telling.”  While it’s acknowledged that truth telling can be detrimental to victims yet is also thought to promote healing and reconciliation, none of the literature delves deeper into the various constructions of confronting the “truth” that arise.  In the class film on Cambodia, a female victim who contributed in the Duch trial specifically stressed Duch’s apology, indicating that it was possibly the most prominent contributor to her process of healing.

It seems that the psychology of apologies speaks to themes within the literature and gives insight into whether victims are re-traumatized vs. helped by confronting the “truth.”  On the receiving end, apologies (when perceived to be genuine) are empowering to those who were wronged through validation and acknowledgement of them as human beings with emotions and rights that should be respected.  In addition to this, and possibly more salient to the topic, when an individual is wronged, the perception of the wrong is inherently linked to social norms in so far as the wrong violated a norm.  By acknowledging the violation, an apology reestablishes the social norms that are necessary maps for individuals to navigate existing within a social system (there are obviously implications of this on a larger scale when the norms themselves are being restructured).

Additionally, as social creatures, humans are naturally empathic beings and we seek to connect with others by visualizing their humanity and thus likeness to us.  A perceived genuine apology can also open space for empathy by giving us an opening to another’s humanity and through this empathic connection victims are potentially more disposed to move into forgiveness.  And through first the recognition/reestablishment of the broken social norm, and then through this hopeful empathic connection, the wrong-doer may cease to exist as a a permanent threat in the victim’s mind.

It would be fascinating and I believe insightful to study the aspects of apology in truth telling, looking at effects of reconciliation and healing in relation to, i.e., when a perpetrator does not come forward, when a perpetrator comes forward but denies the crime, when a perpetrator comes forward and acknowledges crime without expressing remorse or apology, when a perpetrator makes a forced (and unbelieved) apology, and when a perpetrator makes an (unforced) apology that is perceived by victims as genuine.  I think the nuances of this would shed substantial light on what variations in truth telling mean for the objective of victims’ reconciliation.

The Science of Effective Apologies, Psychology Today  (these are just articles not research articles, but they point to interesting things to consider)

The Power of Apology, Psychology Today

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.