Finding Shame in Truth: The Importance of Public Engagement in Truth Commissions

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.


Truth commissions are increasingly used as a transitional justice device in an attempt to move conflict-ridden societies to rights-based periods of stability. Using the case of El Salvador, this article finds that in cases where a truth commission does not directly engage public discourse, it cannot challenge the scripts that dominated the conflict period and therefore defined political actors, for instance as "insurgent" or "national security guarantor." In such cases, the truth commission may publicize "the facts" of the conflict period, but cannot facilitate transition to a new discourse that allows for true reconciliation and participatory governance.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

... From the experience of the truth and reconciliation commissions of a number of countries which have experienced conflict such as South Africa, 44 El Salvador 45 and Northern Ireland 46 , without a revealing of the truth and the presence of an acknowledgement by perpetrators, it is difficult to achieve forgiveness in the process of collective political forgiveness, 47 and the process of reconciliation is also hindered. However, truth also has to be accompanied by the willingness to forgive on the part of victims because without love and forgiveness, healthy relationships and the process of healing will never be realised. ...
... This implies the need for a neutral platform where accurate information about the past and grievances can be debated. One such a platform in post-conflict societies is a 'Truth Commission' (Dancy et al. 2010, Hayner 2010, Mazzei 2011). However, in the absence of a Truth Commission, radio has become an alternative platform for reflecting on the past, expressing grievances, and discussing possible options for redress. ...
Full-text available
This edited volume brings together original case study research from Uganda and other East African countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda) working in the broad field of social justice. The volume was conceived as part of the Nuffic-funded NICHE project Mainstreaming and Strengthening the Social Development Component of JLOS in Uganda (2011-15). Contributors and editors are mainly from the network of ISS staff and Alumni, and from associated researchers. The volume is divided into several sections on: Historical and Restorative Justice in East Africa; Land Justice in East Africa; Helath Justice and Disaibility in Uganda; Legal and Social Justice in East Africa.
Few studies in transitional justice rely on empirical data to interpret the outcome of truth commissions and to analyse the extent to which truth commissions impact transitional societies. In order to elucidate this aspect of transitional justice, this chapter examines the concepts of ‘impact’ and ‘success’ within transitional justice. It also designates criteria for assessing Ghana’s National Reconciliation Commission, which can be used for other truth commissions with minor contextual modifications. The established criteria form the basis for discussing the impact of the commission, using quantitative and qualitative data from a survey conducted by the author. The examination of the National Reconciliation Commission’s impact not only sheds light on the current perceptions held about the work of the commission in Ghana but also demonstrates how the use of empirical data helps to clarify the uncertainties about the impact of truth commissions.
Cambridge Core - Humanitarian Law - Performances of Injustice - by Gabrielle Lynch
Recent decades have seen an explosion of interest in transitional justice. Although much attention has been directed toward measuring the effects of transitional justice mechanisms, discussion of the motivations for and manifestations of resistance to transitional justice processes has been limited. Th is article contributes to this underexamined area through an analysis of the nature of resistance to transitional justice in Bahrain following the February 2011 uprisings. It identifies existing explanations for resistance to and engagement with transitional justice before considering whether Mitchell Dean’s analytics of government approach—with its emphasis on identifying discrepancies between actors’ declared and actual intentions—assists in revealing less obvious manifestations of resistance, such as those seen in Bahrain. It is suggested that adopting the institutional manifestations of transitional justice may, paradoxically, be understood as a strategy for resisting popular demands for accountability and political transformation—the very notions at the core of any transition.
This article investigates the work of a Lebanese non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Committee of the Parents of the Missing and the Disappeared. Although the successive Lebanese governments, most political leaders, ex-militia leaders and ex-combatants did not want to help in revealing the truth about what had happened to the people who went missing during the Lebanese civil war of 1975, the Committee managed to mobilize the families of the missing people under one banner for more than 30 years and was successful in making the Lebanese government and the legal authorities take few but important decisions that favoured the cause of the families of the missing people. It managed to do so without being deterred by the social, political and economic challenges it faced and due to the ability of its leadership to clearly define the sources of contention it wanted to protest against and by selecting the protests methods that best serve its cause.
This book provides a comprehensive introduction to international human rights -- international human rights law, why international human rights have increasingly risen to world prominence, what is being done about violations of human rights, and what might be done to further promote the cause of international human rights so that everyone may one day have their rights respected regardless of who they are or where they live.
This article contributes to an ongoing conversation among feminist scholars about what constitutes feminist positioning with regard to the central issues that define transitions from conflict or repression towards more liberal polities. The analysis suggests that the feminist presence in transitional justice is complex, multilayered and still in the process of full engagement. Concentrating on the genealogy of this presence, the article reflects on what are commonly invoked scholarly and policy reference points, showing how little gender analysis and women's issues entered into the discursive fray in the public and political arenas where the terminology of accountability emerged. The challenge in assessing feminist positioning is that an uncritical and narrowly liberal conception of gender equality directs our gaze away from the cultural, material and geopolitical sites in which transitional justice practices have emerged. The article explores the connections between transitional justice and identification of harms done to women, the importance of acknowledging these harms and the need to centre discussions of agency and autonomy in feminist approaches to structural political change in deeply divided societies.
Full-text available
This PhD thesis focuses on strategic use of framing in the multi-actor debate on human rights to create issue salience. The research results add to the understanding of the strategic choices made by actors in agenda setting and framing related to power relations in issue arenas. The results come together in a conceptual model of the framing processes involved. The results of this PhD thesis show how actors debate and make decisions concerning their communication. Actors can belong to multiple networks and discuss in various issue arenas, and additionally not all actors interact in the same issue arenas. Competition may arise concerning causal relations as well as on how and in what context issues are debated and by whom, which consequently creates power relations, making some actors gatekeepers and some less central in the interaction. Human rights issues are seen as important and universal. However, this is not the reality in the issue arenas influenced by selectiveness and power relations. What this research tells us is that, by using strategic framing in the communication, central actors can selectively push human rights issues and frames to the debate and create different causal relations between issues and actors. By illustrating how framing is used as a tool in enhancing salience and creating a context of causal relations, this PhD thesis adds to the transparency of the human rights debate and, in particular, casts light on the processes of issue selection and framing. By opening up the human rights debate, the selective nature of issue debates is explained. With more transparency, all actors will be better equipped to participate in the debate, thereby benefiting the problem solving of human rights issues.
This article provides a neoinstitutionalist account of how a transnational social movement (TSM) sets its agenda. A theoretical framework is presented to reveal how logics from the transnational and local organizational fields influence legal mobilization. To provide insight into how a TSM accommodates contradictory and competing logics within and between these fields, this article examines mobilization around a fact-finding commission, sometimes called a truth commission, to address the ongoing social and political divides in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The findings, based on fieldwork conducted between 2009 and 2011, are used to develop the theoretical concept of a quasi-judicial medium, a legal body that, initially, will appeal to a variety of actors, but may be unable to adequately address existing divides. The conclusions point to further directions in the study of transnational legal mobilization, particularly the conditions under which the ambiguity of a movement strategy helps meet and/or moderate movement goals.
Full-text available
Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to better understand how issues may be framed in public debate. The outcomes of this debate affect organizations. The study is based on the seven types of framing identified by Hallahan and scrutinizes which of these types is utilized, and how this is done, in the case of human rights issues. Design/methodology/approach ‐ For this study a secondary analysis of academic papers on human rights issues was conducted. After a literature search, 40 papers originating from 23 different journals were further analyzed. Where the researchers described the framing of human rights issues, the type of framing was identified according to the typology and mode of utilization. Findings ‐ In the case of human rights, all seven framing types were found; however, the most common were the framing of attributes in which the economic or cultural context was emphasized and the framing of situations pointing out power differences between the actors. Research limitations/implications ‐ The study underlines the complexity of framing and the importance of awareness of framing processes. It shows that the framing typology provides valuable insights into the debate on social issues, inspiring further research. Practical implications ‐ This study provides a better understanding of the processes of issue framing, an important part of corporate communication strategies. Social implications ‐ The study adds to actor and audience awareness of framing. Originality/value ‐ Insights from framing theory are applied to the debate on social issues, thereby offering a fresh perspective on research in this field and relevant to corporate social responsibility.
Full-text available
This article enquires into the narration of reconciliation in South Africa and its political implications. It scrutinizes the subjects, objects and material practices that flow from the reconciliation story. The investigation turns on two crucial assumptions: (a) that discourse is an ideological system of meaning that constitutes and naturalizes the subjects and objects of political life, and (b) that narrative is a special discursive form, the structural features of which have specific political effects that are not illuminated by a more general discourse analytic approach. A narrative perspective is important because the TRC explicitly undertook the task of telling a story about South Africa’s transition from past violence to future reconciliation, and argued that storytelling was fundamental to catharsis, healing, and reconciliation on an individual and a national level. Narrative theory renders more specifically applicable some of the general claims of political discourse analysis; while the insights of political discourse analysis highlight the political contexts and effects of governing narratives to which most narrative theory, on its own, is blind. The combination of these two theoretical premises furnishes a powerful approach to understanding the story about reconciliation told by the TRC, and its political implications.
Full-text available
To mobilize support for war and to control dissent, governments draw upon deeply engrained discourses regarding soldiering and the citizen's duty to support the troops. We identify the cultural and political evolution of the discursive legacy of “support the troops” from the Vietnam War through the Iraq War. Using longitudinal and comparative organizational analyses, we analyze how this discursive legacy was engaged by U.S. peace movement organizations (PMOs). PMOs frequently made positive references to U.S. troops during both the Gulf War and Iraq War, creating a stable discourse centered around supporting the troops. Moreover, during the Gulf War the movement expanded the web of support by asking who else should be cared about beyond the troops, thus de-coupling the support discourse from the nation and the state. During the Iraq War, PMOs also developed an elaborated “discourse of betrayal” by redefining what it means to support the troops. Here they deployed proactive, anticipatory discourses, turning the tables on the Bush administration. PMOs also increasingly criticized the troops during the Iraq War due to well publicized human rights abuses. The findings demonstrate that movement discourses are both stable and flexible, influenced by past rounds of discursive contention as well as contemporary political events. We highlight the cultural constraints imposed on movements by dominant discursive legacies, and the strategic responses made by movements in response to emerging discursive opportunities.
Dealing with the aftermath of civil conflict or the fall of a repressive government continues to trouble countries throughout the world. Whereas much of the 1990s was occupied with debates concerning the relative merits of criminal prosecutions and truth commissions, by the end of the decade a consensus emerged that this either/or approach was inappropriate and unnecessary. A second generation of transitional justice experiences have stressed both truth and justice and recognize that a single method may inadequately serve societies rebuilding after conflict or dictatorship. Based on studies in ten countries, this book analyzes how some combine multiple institutions, others experiment with community-level initiatives that draw on traditional law and culture, whilst others combine internal actions with transnational or international ones. The authors argue that transitional justice efforts must also consider the challenges to legitimacy and local ownership emerging after external military intervention or occupation.
“Transitional justice” refers to the process of coming to terms with the past in the transition to democracy. It includes, notably, trials, administrative and professional purges, restitution of property, and compensation for suffering. Notable examples of transitions to democracy that had some measure of transitional justice include the demise of the Athenian oligarchs in 411 and then again in 403 b.c. ; the restoration of democracy after 1945 in countries that had been occupied by the Germans during World War II; . the return to or introduction of democracy after 1945 in the main Axis countries: Germany, Japan, Italy; . the fall of military dictatorships in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s; . the return to or introduction of democracy after 1989 in numerous countries in Eastern Europe; . the recent fall of the dictatorships in many Latin American countries, notably, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia; and . the transition to democracy in South Africa. . These cases pose some extraordinary hard and sometimes unusual moral questions, for which we often lack firm intuitions. Here is a preliminary example: Among the agents of the Nazi or Communist regime, should the fanatic or the opportunist be punished more severely? In other words, is the personal commitment to an inhumane ideology an aggravating or an extenuating circumstance? In the fourth Provinciale, Pascal heaps scorn on the Jesuits, who teach that one cannot sin if one does not know that what one is doing is wrong.
In this article, the author uses the concept of "transitional justice"—defined as the way societies or groups elect to deal with the past as they establish a new system—to examine the manner in which political behavior in postauthoritarian states both manifests and modifies aggressor-victim memory. Comparing the cases of transition from authoritarianism to democracy in South Africa, El Salvador, and Poland, she contrasts the positive outcomes of the open confrontation with "silent memory" in South Africa with the failure of Poland and El Salvador, in different ways, to deal conclusively and consistently with the past. In the case of Poland, the initial silence turned the past into a political football that soured the citizenry on political participation. In the case of El Salvador, the author posits that "boomerang justice" stimulated by outside interests has split the population and alienated both sides from effective political action. The article thereby advances an interpretation of political behavior as a locus for collective memory in nation-states, with the conclusion for postauthoritarian states that transitional justice can free political behavior from the trappings of the past, but only if aggressors and victims confront one another and move toward reconciliation.
The truth commissions in El Salvador and Honduras attempted to offer the transitional civilian governments a way to balance their moral and legal obligations with practical political constraints; namely to reconcile calls from different sectors of society to either punish or forgive those responsible for past human rights violations; and to establish new and independent institutions without precipitating a backlash from vested interests which could derail the whole democratic transition. This paper examines the parameters in which these truth commissions operated, and evaluates the role they played in trying to facilitate the democratisation processes in Honduras and El Salvador.
In recent years, Latin American countries have sought to come to terms with prior periods of widespread human rights violations, relying increasingly on investigatory commissions. Investigatory efforts have been undertaken by democratically elected governments that replaced military dictatorships, by UN-sponsored commissions as part of a UN-mediated peace process, and by national human rights commissioners. This article examines truth commissions in Chile and El Salvador, an investigatory effort in Honduras, and a proposed commission in Guatemala. It compares the achievements and limitations of these commissions within the political constraints and institutional reality of each country, focusing on four major goals: the effort to create an authoritative account of the past; vindication of victims; recommendations for legislative, structural, or other changes to avoid repetition of past abuses; and establishing accountability or the identity of perpetrators.
The victim has been put at the centre of states' post-atrocity strategies to reform governance, rehabilitate state authority and promote reconciliation. This paper explores the role of the victim in the truth commissions and trials aimed at reconciliation and justice and their experiences of the outcomes. The successor state's focus on recovering victims after mass atrocity ritually inverts the former regime's project of producing them. In both truth commissions and trials the state seeks to manipulate the ‘spectacle’ of the victim's pain and suffering to publicly project the power of the state for different ends. Whereas the repressive state seeks to deepen the effects of violence as a strategy of rule, the successor state seeks to reverse the social and political effects of violence. These strategies of transitional justice have sought to reverse the effects of exclusion, to reverse the direction of state power from producing victims towards redeeming victims, from injuring to healing. Because of the problems of mass criminality and widespread impunity, truth commissions have become widely adopted in preference to trials as a bureaucratic response to bureaucratic murder. They set about producing a ‘democratising truth’ through a process of public inquiry located outside the state in the people. On the whole, the process, the public testimony and the witnessing has been better received than the product, the reports and the reparations. By contrast, trials seek to produce a societal consensus based on the recovery of the law. But in both cases the victim is redeemed through the individualising discourse of law or the polarising logic of trials which establishes the guilty and innocent. The truth of atrocity is found in affirming gross human rights abuses in victims, in transacted violence rather than the deeper structures of violence. Thus, victimhood is built on a universalising human rights discourse which overly individualises the origins of atrocity.
In 1932 security forces in El Salvador murdered 25,000 peasants and workers. Between 1978 and 1991 the Salvadoran government killed an additional 50,000 civilians. Death squads maimed and tortured their victims, who included labor organizers, priests, and teachers. By the later months of 1980, government forces were slaughtering 1,000 civilians a month. Most of those killed were poor or worked with the poor. In per capita terms Salvadoran state terror was among the worst in the hemisphere. States have killed more people than have rebellions, but we know very little about what factors influence this genocide. Why do states kill? In this provocative and chilling book, William Stanley demonstrates that the Salvadoran military state was essentially a protection racket. It offered protection to the elites from civilian uprising and in return received a concession to govern. This protection took the form of wide-scale murder. As Stanley puts it, "State violence was a currency of relations between state and non-state elites." There are valuable lessons in this book for all those concerned with state-sponsored terror. It indicts the United States for having strengthened the might of the Salvadoran military. It challenges conventional wisdom about governments and repression and shows state-sponsored violence as much more than just a response to opposition.
Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? Paramilitary Emergence in Contemporary Latin America
  • Julie Mazzei
  • Forthcoming
Mazzei, Julie. Forthcoming. Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? Paramilitary Emergence in Contemporary Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Matanza: The 1932 " slaughter " that traumatized a nation, shaping US-Salvadoran policy to this day. 2 nd Ed
  • Thomas P Anderson
Anderson, Thomas P. 1992. Matanza: The 1932 " slaughter " that traumatized a nation, shaping US-Salvadoran policy to this day. 2 nd Ed. Connecticut: Curbstone Press.
Patronage and Politics under General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez
  • Erik Ching
Ching, Erik. 2004. " Patronage and Politics under General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, 1931-1939, " Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society, and Community in El Salvador.
Fresno Suit hearing recalls Salvadoran cleric's slaying in '80 San Francisco Chronicle <
  • Tyche Hendricks
Hendricks, Tyche. 2004 (25 August). " Fresno Suit hearing recalls Salvadoran cleric's slaying in '80. " San Francisco Chronicle < /SF%20chron%208.25.04.htm>.
Who's Defending Monsignor Romero? " Revista Envio
  • Elaine Freedman
Freedman, Elaine. 2008. " Who's Defending Monsignor Romero? " Revista Envio. January. <> Accessed 17 Mar 2008.
4 Salvadorans Kills in Way that Evokes '80s Conflict The New York Times/ 21 Feb
  • Marc Lacey
Lacey, Marc. 2007. " 4 Salvadorans Kills in Way that Evokes '80s Conflict, " The New York Times/ 21 Feb. < 21salvador.html?> Accessed 17 Mar 2008.
The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post- Conflict Societies
  • Un
UN Secretary General. 2004. " The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post- Conflict Societies. " United Nations Security Council. Doc S/2004/616; reissued under 04- 39529(E).
The Moral Foundations of the South African TRC: Truth as Acknowledgement and Justice as Recognition " in Rotbert, Robert I. and Dennis Thompson. Truth V. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions
  • Du Troit
Du Troit, André. 2000. " The Moral Foundations of the South African TRC: Truth as Acknowledgement and Justice as Recognition " in Rotbert, Robert I. and Dennis Thompson. Truth V. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Salvador: from the Bullet to the ballot The Progressive
  • Elizabeth Dinovella
DiNovella, Elizabeth. 2004. " Salvador: from the Bullet to the ballot, " The Progressive. 1 March. 68(3):26. <> Accessed 17 Mar 2008.
From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, Annex Truth Commissions: Reports: El Salvador United States Institute of Peace Library. 24 Feb
  • Un Security
UN Security Council. 1993. From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, Annex. S/25500 (1993): 187-192. " Truth Commissions: Reports: El Salvador. " United States Institute of Peace Library. 24 Feb. 2003 < /tc_es_03 151993_VI_VII.html>.
El Salvador Confronts the Truth Commission Report
  • Lauren Weiner
Weiner, Lauren. 1993 (December). " El Salvador Confronts the Truth Commission Report, " Freedom Review. 24(6):36.
El Salvador: ARENA wins elections
  • Sarah Garland
Garland, Sarah. 2004. " El Salvador: ARENA wins elections, " NACLA: Report on the Americas. 37(6):1.
A Salvadoran Hero's Justice
  • Marcela Sanchez
Sanchez, Marcela. 2004. " A Salvadoran Hero's Justice, " 9 September. <> Accessed 17 Mar 2008.
Tras Votos Noticias de las Elecciones
  • Enrique Miranda
  • Francisco Mejía
Miranda, Enrique and Francisco Mejía. 2006. " Tras Votos. " Noticias de las Elecciones. <> Accessed 17 Mar 2008.
El Salvador: Payback PBS: Frontline/World
  • Joe Rubin
Rubin, Joe. 2004. " El Salvador: Payback. " PBS: Frontline/World. 12 Oct. 2004. <>. Accessed 17 March 2008.