ArticlePDF Available

The Truth of Truth Commissions: Comparative Lessons from Haiti, South Africa, and Guatemala

  • UConn School of Medicine

Abstract and Figures

This article identifies some of the complexities and factors shaping the efforts of truth commissions. It also evaluates the kinds of truths that truth commissions can most appropriately seek to determine. While truth commissions are often portrayed as generic bodies, they have very different approaches to the kind of "truth" they are seeking. Their official mandates, the perceptions and priorities of their commissioners and key staff, the methodological orientations utilized, and the level of resources available all shape the nature of their findings and the type of report they produce. In addition, decisions made by those working within a specific truth commission, sometimes without an understanding of their implications, often have important consequences for truth-finding. The analysis draws on the experience of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program in providing scientific and technical assistance to three recent truth commissions-the Haitian National Commission for Truth and Justice (CNVJ), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC), and the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) in Guatemala.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2001, pp.
1-43 (Article)
DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2001.0005
For additional information about this article
Access provided by University of Connecticut @ Storrs (15 Mar 2016 15:32 GMT)
Human Rights Quarterly
23 (2001) 1–43 © 2001 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
The Truth of Truth Commissions:
Comparative Lessons from Haiti,
South Africa, and Guatemala
Audrey R. Chapman*
Patrick Ball**
As the twenty-first century opens, many deeply divided societies are
struggling to overcome a heritage of collective violence and severe human
rights violations. The twentieth-century may be most remembered for its
legacy of gross human rights violations and mass atrocities. Violent
conflicts, massacres, and oppression by one group over another have torn
apart the social fabric of countries in nearly every region of the world. The
killing fields of Cambodia, South Africa’s brutal apartheid system, genocide
in Rwanda and Burundi, and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia are
Audrey R. Chapman
is the director of two programs at the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, Science and Human Rights and the Dialogue on Science, Ethics,
and Religion. She has published widely on a variety of topics related to economic, social,
and cultural rights; bioethics; and truth commissions. Currently she is the director of a
project with several South African collaborators assessing the legacy and impact of the
South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, specifically its ability to balance truth
finding with promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. She is the author, coauthor, or editor
of fourteen books including
Human Rights and Health: The Legacy of Apartheid.
Patrick Ball
is Deputy Director of the American Assocation for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program. Since 1991, he has designed information
management systems and conducted quantitative analysis for large-scale human rights data
projects for truth commissions, nongovernmental organizations, and UN missions in El
Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, South Africa, and Kosovo. In his most recent report
from AAAS, “Policy or Panic? The Flight of Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, March-May
1999,” he reconstructs the flow of refugees by villages across time to show that only a small
fraction of Kosovar Albanians fled as a result of NATO bombing raids. Instead, the
migration patterns were so regular that they must have been the result of a coordinated
but some of the terrible examples. Added to this collective brutality are the
state terrorism and repression of the Soviet and Chinese gulags, the gross
human rights violations of many authoritarian regimes, and the disappear-
ances and torture inflicted by military-dominated dictatorships on their own
As a step in the process of healing and reconciliation, at least fourteen
countries,1 most recently South Africa and Guatemala, have established
truth commissions or analogous bodies, and some have had more than one.
Recent peace processes and ongoing efforts for national reconciliation have
also proposed a role for truth commissions in Sierra Leone, Nigeria,
Cambodia, Colombia, and Peru. Truth commissions are temporary bodies,
usually with an official status, set up to investigate a past history of human
rights violations that took place within a country during a specified period of
time. In contrast with tribunals or courts, truth commissions do not have
prosecutorial powers to bring cases to trial. Nor do they act as judicial
bodies to investigate individuals accused of crimes. Their role is truth-
finding, or more precisely, documenting and acknowledging a legacy of
conflict and human rights violations as a step toward healing wounds.2
Truth commissions, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of South
Africas Truth and Reconciliation Commission, observed, offer a third way,
a compromise between the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II or
the prospective International Criminal Court and blanket amnesty or
national amnesia.3 This third way is significant for several reasons.
Establishing the basis for a shared future requires coming to terms with the
past, but it is often very difficult to prosecute architects and perpetrators
responsible for political violence and human rights violations, particularly
when large numbers of people are involved. Even in the case of Nazi war
crimes, fewer than 6,500 of the 90,000 cases brought to court resulted in
convictions.4 Given the scale of the collective violence in places like
Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, it is just not feasible to prosecute
all the alleged offenders, and an effort to do so is likely to have thousands of
persons languishing in detention for very long period of time. Moreover, few
transitional countries have the strong legal institutions and resources
1. The precise number of countries depends on how strict a definition of truth commis-
sions is applied. Truth commissions, or other mechanisms approximating a truth
commission, have been set up in Uganda, Bolivia, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Germany, the
Philippines, Uruguay, Chile, El Salvador, Rwanda, Brazil, Haiti, and Guatemala, as well
as South Africa.
Priscilla B. Hayner,
Fifteen Truth Commissions1974 to 1994: A Comparative
, 16 HUM. RTS. Q. 597 (1994).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 3
required for successful domestic prosecutions. Many of the civil servants,
prosecutors, and judges serving the new government may themselves have
been complicitous in abuses perpetrated by the previous regime, or at least
sympathetic to its philosophy. Critical evidence and records are likely to be
missing or destroyed. South Africas unsuccessful effort to convict General
Magnus Malan, army chief and later defense minister, for authorizing an
assassination squad responsible for numerous extrajudicial executions
shows how difficult it is to gather sufficiently detailed and reliable evidence
to successfully prosecute alleged perpetrators. Many transitional societies
choose to establish truth commissions because these bodies can potentially
provide a far more comprehensive record of past history than the trials of
specific individuals and do so in a less divisive manner. In contrast with
criminal prosecutions, the purpose of a truth commission is to provide an
authoritative account of a specific period or regime, determine the major
causes of the violence, and make recommendations about measures to
undertake so as to avoid a repetition in the future. By verifying the accounts
of victims, official acknowledgment of abuses can support the credibility of
victims suffering and help restore their dignity. Moreover, public identifica-
tion of perpetrators and their offenses constitutes one form of accountability,
particularly if it leads to their exclusion or ineligibility for public office, and
if not, at least imposes the punishment of shame. In addition, a truth
commission can go beyond a court of law and render a moral judgment
about what was wrong and unjustifiable, and in that way helps to frame the
events in a new national narrative of acknowledgment, accountability, and
civic values.5
Given the central role assigned to truth commissions, it is relevant to
ask what is the nature of the truth that truth commissions are mandated to
find? Analysts writing on truth commissions often portray truth as a single
objective reality waiting to be discovered or found. As an example, Priscilla
Hayner has commented that in many situations the victimized populations
are often clear about what abuses took place and who has carried them out.
. . . Given this knowledge, the importance of truth commissions might be
described more accurately as
the truth rather than finding
the truth.6
However, the documentation and interpretation of truth is more
complex and ambiguous than many analysts and proponents of truth
commissions assume. Social, technical, and methodological constraints, as
well as epistemological limitations of what can be known, all affect a
VIOLENCE 78 (1998).
6. Hayner,
note 2, at 607.
commissions ability to produce an authoritative account. Developing an
official authoritative account of a contested past, and especially doing so in
an objective and careful manner consistent with strict standards of historical
and social science research, requires far more than accumulating anecdotal
evidence to support widely held beliefs about what has happened and who
is responsible. If popular assumptions have little basis in fact, or if more
serious violations have been hidden, the commission must refute popular
understandings and conduct deep research.
This article identifies some of the complexities and factors shaping the
efforts of truth commissions. It also evaluates the kinds of truths that truth
commissions can most appropriately seek to determine. While truth com-
missions are often portrayed as generic bodies, they have very different
approaches to the kind of truth they are seeking. Their official mandates,
the perceptions and priorities of their commissioners and key staff, the
methodological orientations utilized, and the level of resources available all
shape the nature of their findings and the type of report they produce. In
addition, decisions made by those working within a specific truth commis-
sion, sometimes without an understanding of their implications, often have
important consequences for truth-finding. The analysis draws on the
experience of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences
(AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program in providing scientific and
technical assistance to three recent truth commissionsthe Haitian Na-
tional Commission for Truth and Justice (CNVJ), the Truth and Reconcilia-
tion Commission of South Africa (TRC), and the Commission for Historical
Clarification (CEH) in Guatemala.
A recent article points out, [truth] is so commonly used that it seems to be
a transparent notion, clear to all who are involved or interested in redressing
past abuses, but truth, like justice and reconciliation, is an elusive
concept that defies rigid definitions.7 In contrast with optimistic assump-
tions that truth commissions merely need to find or confirm an already
existing truth, postmodern philosophers challenge the very notion of an
objective truth and generally assert that there is no objective knowledge,
only differing viewpoints and perspectives. The postmodern world view
claims that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth
are dependent on the community in which we participate and our own
7. Michelle Parlevliet,
Considering the Truth, Dealing with a Legacy of Gross Human
Rights Violations
, 16 NETH. Q. HUM. RTS. 142 (1998).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 5
social location and experience.8 Michel Foucault would add that every
interpretation of reality is an assertion of power and that social institutions
invariably engage in a form of violence when they impose their own
understanding or interpretation on experience.9
It does not require a postmodern perspective to acknowledge that
determining the truth of complex social events, let alone historical periods,
is difficult under the best of circumstances. Moreover, truth commissions
typically function in an environment in which there are sharply conflicting
and politically freighted versions of the past. Indeed, such situations are
those in which truth commissions are most desperately needed. Far from
facts being self-explanatory and just waiting to be discovered, the writing
and interpretation of history under such circumstances is inevitably going to
be complex and highly contested.
Moreover, truth commissions have intrinsic limitations that make them
fundamentally unsuited to provide
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing
but the truth
. Most truth commissions operate under many of the same
constraints that make the legal prosecution of individuals alleged to have
committed political crimes so difficultweak legal institutions, limited
resources, dependence on cooperation from officials who served the
previous regime, missing data, and political environments that limit their
mandates and options. Also, the systematic suppression or destruction of
incriminating evidence is a common problem. Records from a secret
military archive detailing the fate of 200 victims who were disappeared by
the Guatemalan military were made available to AAAS and several other
human rights organizations after the publication of the Guatemalan truth
commissions report, but not to the CEH in Guatemala; these records are
likely just a small part of the relevant data that were hidden or destroyed.10
In the case of South Africa, the apartheid regime regularly purged the
archives of huge volumes of sensitive documents, particularly those dealing
with security issues. On the eve of the political transition, the security
establishment became increasingly apprehensive about certain state records
passing out of their control and undertook an even more systematic and
vigorous effort to destroy state records.11
Most truth commissions rely on victims testimony as a primary source
of data. Memory is inherently subjective and open to change over time; this
at 133 (Colin Gordon ed., 1980).
Guatemalan Death Squad Dossier
(visited 15 Nov. 2000) <
gdsd> (for an analysis of these documents and links to their full content).
See, e.g.,
[hereinafter TRC].
is especially true for memories related to traumatic experiences and public
events. Public memories are likely to be influenced by a variety of
interpretative factors, including community, cultural, or traditional myths
and personal fantasies. All social memory, be it documented through the
oral, written or visual mediums, is both reconstructed and selective.12
A. Van Dongen of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reflecting on his
extensive experience in human rights fact-finding missions as a member of
the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, stresses
the gap between perception and reality:
I do not believe in truth, I believe in perceptions. . . . People have a certain
impression of how reality is, which is their perception of reality; they call it
objective reality themselves, but essentially, it always is subjective reality. Thus,
for most people there is no wedge between reality and perception: perception
At the least, facts may be loaded with different meaning when
considered from divergent perspectives.14 An event leading to fundamental
abuses of human rights may be recollected and interpreted quite differently
by various victims, even by a single person depending on stimuli and
specific questions,15 let alone by a victim and a perpetrator. A paper
analyzing the work of the TRC in the Eastern Cape, for example, identifies
three different truths, that were revealed in its amnesty hearings: the
truth of the security police, the truth of the African National Congress
(ANC), and the truth of the public and those involved in Congress of South
African Students who were not part of any military actions.16
To the (mainly black) supporters of the liberation movements and mass
movements, the stories were of their heroes and martyrspeople who were
presented as courageous activists, who were ruthlessly tortured and murdered
by the security police. To the security police, these people were terrorist pawns
of an international revolutionary communist conspiracy.17
12. Sean Field, Memory, the TRC and the Significance of Oral History in Post-Apartheid
South Africa 5 (1114 June 1999) (unpublished paper presented at a conference on The
TRC: Commissioning the Past, at the University of the Witwatersrand),
available at
13. Parlevliet,
note 7, at 146. This statement is based on an interview given to
Michelle Parlevliet in October 1996 and translated by her.
at 147.
15. For example, a considerable number of victims gave quite different testimony in public
hearings in South Africa than they provided in their individual statements.
Janet Cherry, No Easy Road to Truth: The TRC in the Eastern Cape (1114 June
(paper presented at a conference on The TRC: Commissioning the Past, at the
University of the Witwatersrand).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 7
Further complicating the situation, the source of victim testimony
frequently is not the victim himself or herself but a relative. This is because
many of the victims of atrocities and gross human rights abuses are
deceased; the event in question may have happened more than thirty years
before the commission began work, or the violation being testified about is
frequently a killing. Thus the testimony often comes from a relative, friend,
or neighbor, who may not have witnessed the events in question. At the
TRC, about half of all violations were reported by someone other than the
victim;18 at the CEH, only about 15 percent of victims were witnesses, and
about half of witnesses were victims.19
Moreover, there is a significant difference between the private/indi-
vidual truth of those who have been victims of human rights violations or
those who have witnessed human rights violations and the public/social
level truth that truth commissions are mandated to present. Many victims
who offer testimony to truth commissions understand truth in terms of efforts
to document the details of the events in which they participated and to
identify those responsible for the abuses and violence in which they were
involved. They assume that these efforts will substantiate and validate their
memories of these events. This detail-centered truth approximates what
judicial investigators might do, and it is truth at an intensely micro-level.
The comprehensive record of the past that truth commissions are
mandated to establish is quite different in nature. It is not merely the sum of
these private experiences of abuses made public. Mandates of truth
commissions usually assign them the tasks of assessing the magnitude of the
violence, the patterns, the trends, and the locations in which it took place.
Typically, truth commissions are also expected to understand the causes of
the violence and sometimes to identify the ideological or political justifica-
tions that tried to legitimize the abuses. To be able to make these
determinations requires extensive research, advanced methods for data
collection and processing, and a complex information management system
leading to analysis and interpretation of the findings. This is truth at the
Given the magnitude of their task and the limitations of time and
resources, truth commissions have to be very selective in their approach
and what they choose to emphasize. The sheer task of attempting to
document the past can be overwhelming. For example, the TRCs final
report fills five volumes, and yet it is still incomplete.20 Because truth
commissions cannot investigate all potential cases or events, they frequently
1 TRC,
note 11, at 171.
19. Internal calculations in the CEH database area, November 1998 (on file with author).
20. An additional volume known internally at the TRC as the codicil will be published
upon completion of the Amnesty Committees work.
choose representative or significant ones, what the TRC refers to as
window cases. This raises the question of the criteria used in making the
selection and on what basis they are considered representative or signifi-
cant. Time and writing constraints can also lead to superficiality and over-
simplification. Many staff from the TRC research department conveyed their
frustrations about the manner in which their papers and reports were cut
down to just two or three pages to fit into the five volume report21. One
result was that the edited version simplified and distorted the original
analysis. The final TRC report was crafted according to particular strategies
of inclusion and exclusion, reflecting criteria that are partly epistemological
and methodological in nature and partly moral.22
The amount of information required to document the past can be
massive. During its three years of operation, the TRC held several hundred
public hearings at which over 1,800 victims were heard, it conducted more
than 21,000 victim interviews, and it processed approximately 7,000
amnesty applications.23 Similarly, the CEH investigated more than 7,500
cases derived from interviews with more than 11,000 deponents, document-
ing 24,910 killings.24 In order to convert such massive data into useable
information, commissions must decide what will constitute proper methods:
not only what they will define as true, but how the commission will make
the claim that something is true.
In many ways, truth commissions shape or socially construct rather
than find the truth. This may occur either consciously or unintentionally.
The work of the Guatemalan commission contains some biases, primarily
the focus on violations to the Indian population in the highlands during the
1980s and the relative exclusion of considering violations that occurred
among the Ladino population in the late 1960s. In South Africa, TRC
commissioners determined who was invited to testify in public hearings,
what was presented, and how the testimony was summarized for the record.
As we discuss in detail below, an analysis of the public hearing transcripts
indicates an over representation of whites, a preference for including
leaders of the struggle over less well-known victims, frequent interventions
note 16.
Deborah Posel, The TRC Report: What Kind of History? What Kind of Truth? (1114
June 1999) (unpublished paper presented at a conference on The TRC: Commissioning
the Past, at the University of the Witwatersrand).
AAAS/CSVR Transcript Analysis Project (a project of the AAAS and the Center for
the Study of Violence and Reconciliation that is undertaking a systematic analysis of the
public hearing transcripts);
see also
, 1 TRC,
note 11, at 168, 267.
Online Report
(visited 15 Nov. 2000) <>
[hereinafter CEH, Tomo I]);
see also
CEH, TOMO XII, at 238; CEH database area (Nov.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 9
by commissioners, and a disparity between the victims testimony and the
manner in which commissioners interpreted it.25 Commissions findings are
the product in part of deliberate decisions to focus on particular events and
of the limits of their ability to process information. But perhaps more
fundamentally, the findings are the product of what commissions decide
truth means.
What truth means to a commission has sometimes been articulated, but
most often not. Like the commissions that preceded them, neither the
Haitian nor Guatemalan commissions had an explicit exposition of truth
because they assumed truth would automatically result from a rigorous
application of their mandate, the relevant legal standards, and a consistent
methodology.26 The South African commission articulated a complex and
postmodern understanding of truth, but the definitions seem post-hoc and
have little connection to the analysis in the volumes of the report in which
historical narratives are presented.27
In the CNVJ report, the methodology section describes the legal
framework that established the commission, the use of primary (interview)
and secondary sources, and how three levels of proof were used to grade
the quality of each decision.28 Similarly, the CEH report argues that in each
of the cases investigated, there was at least one human rights violation by
the government or an act of violence by the guerrilla insurgents: in order to
achieve this first objective, the Commission has used principally juridical
categories from International Human Rights Law and International Humani-
tarian Law.29
But inside the CNVJ and the CEH, debates about truth raged. In the
Haitian commission, a conflict between legal and social science ap-
proaches to investigation and classification of violations resulted in three
fundamental changes to the basic data classification schemes, requiring the
analysts to recode the entire set of testimonies twice. The CNVJs chair was
a sociologist, but most of the other commissioners were lawyers, some of
whom openly disdained social science methods. In Guatemala, although
AAAS/CSVR Transcript Analysis Project,
note 23.
(Phillip E. Berryman trans., 1993).
2 & 3 TRC,
note 11.
Rapport de la Commission Nationale de Vérité et de Justice, ch. 3 (visited 15 Nov.
2000) <> [hereinafter cited as CNVJ].
29. CEH, TOMO I,
note 24, §101, at 5152.
there were significant differences in approach and tensions between legal
and social scientific concepts,30 Commission researchers incorporated
history, anthropology, sociology, economics, and military science into the
Of all truth commissions, the TRC was the most self-conscious and
intentional about its conception of truth. Its report distinguishes between
four notions of truth: factual or forensic truth, personal or narrative truth,
social or dialogue truth, and healing and restorative truth.32 Of these four
approaches, only factual or forensic truth refers to the impartial and
objective evidence that most truth commissions have understood as their
mandate. The other three concepts of truth articulated in the report
sometimes competed with and sometimes complemented the objective and
analytical approach to truth-finding. The TRCs forms of truth encode as
truths ideas that other commissions may have had but have expressed as
goals to be achieved, not as alternativeand competingforms of truth.
The TRCs first kind of truth is impartial evidence that tells truth at two
levels: (1) truth about individual events, cases, and people, and (2) about
nature, causes, and extent of gross violations of human rights, including the
antecedents, circumstances, factors, context, motives, and perspectives that
led to such violations.33 This is the way that most truth commissions have
understood truth. The TRC called this scientific and forensic or micro-
scope truth, both of which imply that the TRC understood this kind of truth
to play a very limited role in its work. The TRC report somewhat grudgingly
links the use of a social science methodology enabling it to analyze and
interpret information contained in its database to its mandate to make
findings both at the micro-level (on particular incidents and in respect to
specific people) and at the macro-level (to identify the broader patterns
underlying gross violations of human rights).34 Yet, it is obvious that the TRC
understood this form of truth to play a limited role. The same passage of the
report quotes Michael Ignatieffs remark—“[a]ll that a truth commission can
achieve is to reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged
in public discourse.35 The narrowness with which this kind of truth was
understood by the TRC is perhaps surprising since this is explicitly what
other truth commissions claimed to seek through rigorous methods, though
Sonia Zambrano
, The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification: Data-
base Representation and Data Processing, in
MAKING THE CASE ch. 12 (Patrick Ball et al.
eds., 2000),
available at Making the Case
(visited 15 Nov. 2000) <
note 24, at 52.
1 TRC,
note 11, at 110.
33. Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act §1(4)(a)(ii)(1995).
1 TRC,
note 11, at 111.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 11
this micro-truth was for most commissions a starting point from which
generalizations could be drawn.
The second truth the TRC defines is narrative truth, explicitly evoking
the cathartic benefits of storytelling. Victims make meaning and sense out of
their experiences through narration, and under certain circumstances,
storytelling contributes to psychological healing after trauma.36 Most com-
missions noted the importance of this idea, including the Chilean and
Guatemalan commissions, though it was not understood as a kind of
truth.37 Narrative truth was central to the work of the TRC, especially to
the hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee to whom victims
told their stories in public hearings.
The emphasis on social or dialogue truth is the one in which the
TRC was truly unique. By this term, they referred to the process and
dialogue which surrounded their work: as the TRC report said, [t]he public
was engaged through open hearings and the media. The Commission itself
was also subjected to constant public scrutiny and critique.38 The report
traces the idea of social truth to a distinction made by Albie Sachs, who
played an important role in the establishment of the Commission and now
serves as a Constitutional Court judge.39 He contrasted microscope truth
with dialogue truth, arguing that the former is factual, verifiable, and can
be documented.40 In contrast, dialogue truth is
social truth, the truth of
experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate
Because all other commissions functioned largely out of public scrutiny,
social truth was less important in other national contexts.
The fourth kind of truthrestorative truthis the truth that comes from
putting facts in their contexts: in political context of power between social
actors, in historical context of the sequence of contingent events, and in the
ideological context in which contending visions of the social world
compete. As the commission acknowledges and recognizes what hap-
pened, it validates the experience of people. The TRC wrote that [a]ck-
nowledgement is an affirmation that a persons pain is real and worthy of
attention. It is thus central to the restoration of the dignity of victims.42 This
note 26, at 1617 (for a discussion
of the presence of a social worker at each family member interview, and of the utility of
collective support after group interviews). The CEH did not explain this goal explicitly.
However, their choice of a victims quotation to appear on the back of each volume
(discussed in article), and the internal discussions at the CEH, suggest that they were
very aware of the importance of this issue.
38. 1 TRC,
note 11, at 114.
at 113 (quoting from ALEX BORAINE AND JANE LEVY, HEALING OF A NATION (1995)).
41. 1 TRC,
note 11, at 113.
at 114.
elegantly restates the overarching political objective of almost all truth
commissions. The CEH, for example, has the following quotation from a
testimony on the back of every published volume.
A witness showed us the remains of one of the victims bones. He had these
remains wrapped in plastic in a string bag: It hurts so much to carry them . . .
its like carrying death. . . . Im not going to bury them yet . . . I do so want him
to rest, and to rest myself, too. But I cant, not yet . . . this is the evidence for my
testimony . . . Im not going to bury them yet, I want a piece of paper that will
say to me they killed him . . . he had committed no crime, he was innocent...
and then we will rest.43
The idea that public acknowledgment of sufferingthe truth about injus-
ticewill begin to restore victims dignity is perhaps the central premise on
which truth commissions are founded. Yet framing acknowledgment as a
distinct kind of truth suggests that restorative truth (and the resulting
reconciliation) might be somehow different from (or even in contradiction
to) the forensic, legal truth demanded by the CEH witness in the quotation
above. This may be one of the roots of a contradiction that beset the TRCs
report, and indeed, its entire public life: was the TRC the truth
reconciliation commission, or the truth
reconciliation commission? In
the Methods and Report under Section D, parts 2 and 3, we will argue that
when the TRC faced decisions between pursuing truth or pursuing reconcili-
ation, they chose reconciliation.
A. Mandate
The mandate assigned to a specific truth commission plays a decisive role in
shaping its truth-finding. Its terms of reference determine its priorities and
the nature of the truth it will attempt to investigate. Many truth commissions
have restricted terms of reference that reflect the political compromises that
led to their creation. Typically, truth commissions emerge out of negotiated
settlements in which there are not clear victors and vanquished. Often the
architects of the violence and abuses or their supporters retain political
influence and power. Those ceding their positions of power frequently
attempt to impose conditions that will restrict the powers and findings of the
bodies that will be able to investigate the past. Or the mandate may reflect
the priorities and concerns of those drafting the mechanisms under which
they were established, many of whom believe it is in the countrys interest
to have a short transition period.
See, e.g.,
note 24.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 13
Their assigned mandates circumscribe the truth finding of truth commis-
sions in a variety of ways. Despite the brutality of both Duvalier dictator-
ships that governed Haiti for some forty years beginning in 1957, the CNVJ
was mandated to deal only with the human rights abuses of the Cedras de
facto regime. General Raoul Cedras overthrew President Bertrand Aristide in
September 1991 and governed until Aristide returned to Port-au-Prince on
14 October 1994.44
The CEH did have responsibility for a longer period, approximately
coinciding with the internal armed confrontation beginning in 1962 through
the signing of the 1994 peace accords. But this periodization led to the
understanding that the guerrilla insurgents began the war; if the period had
begun in 1954 with the CIA-organized military coup detat against a
democratically elected government, the implication would have been that
the coup was the root cause of the conflict.45 The CEH was prohibited by its
mandate from naming individual perpetrators, and many critics argued that
this terribly weakened their ability to shed light on the past.46 The apparent
handicap of no names, however, became a strength, in part because it
widened the CEHs scope, encouraging it to examine the roles of institutions
and the social structure that produced the violence, instead of identifying
individual perpetrators. That is, the prohibition forced the CEH to focus on
the macro issues which are a truth commissions most important goal.
The mandate of the TRC focused it exclusively on gross violations of
human rights. In the South African case, there was a further qualification;
to fall under its purview the gross human rights abuses had to be committed
with a political motive. The period the TRC was assigned to investigate was
1 March 1960 through the elections in May 1994, but certainly not the full
sweep of apartheid history. Gross human rights abuses were defined as the
killing, abduction, torture or severe ill-treatment of any person; or any
attempt, conspiracy, incitement, instigation, command or procurement to
commit [such an] act . . . with a political motive.47 Because the mandate of
the TRC was restricted to gross human rights abuses, it did not assess the
impact of the institutionalized racism of the apartheid system that arguably
had a far more profound and abusive impact on the population. Forced
removals alone accounted for many more deaths than direct state violence.
The TRC commissioners could have interpreted their mandate more
See, e.g.,
note 28, ch. 1.
45. The CEH explicitly recognized the 1954 coup as the crucial turning point toward more
exclusive social policies, even as the mandate restricted their investigative scope to the
period 19601996.
note 24, at 105.
46. During 1994, religious leaders, including Archbishop Juan Gerardi Conadera, criticized
the accord, as did popular movement leaders, such as Factor Méndez of the human
rights group CIEPRODH.
47. Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, ch. 1, pt. 1, ix (1995).
broadly than they did. Among its assignments, the TRC was to establish as
complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross
violations of human rights . . . including the antecedents, circumstances,
factors and context of such violations.48 As it tried to do in some of the
sectoral hearings, the TRC could have used its mandate to determine the
causes, antecedents, circumstances and factors to undertake a more
systematic analysis of apartheid. Somewhat ironically, despite its limited
mandate and decades of international attention to apartheid, the CEH
undertook a far more penetrating analysis of the official policy of racism and
social exclusion than did the TRC: among the three historical causes of the
armed conflict, the second theme is racism, the subordination and
exclusion of the indigenous community.49
The approach of the TRC resulted in the individualization of the gross
abuses of the past.50 Gross violations of human rights were treated more as
the product of individuals decisions and actions than the outcome of the
dynamics of the apartheid system. This enabled white South Africans who
were the supporters and beneficiaries of apartheid to escape from acknowl-
edging their complicity in the systems abuses. As one analyst points out,
The increasingly familiar refrain within white South African communities,
that apartheid was merely a mistake for which no-one was responsible,
that somehow the system propelled itself impersonally, may be one of the
more ironic, unintended consequences of the TRCs rendition of the past.51
Truth commissions have significant time constraints built into their
mandates, and indeed, a limited period of existence is part of what
distinguishes a commission from a permanent governmental human rights
body. Most begin with an explicit time limit, often just six to nine months to
complete all investigations and write a report.52 Sometimes the initial period
is extended. The Haitian truth commission worked for nine months (April
1995January 1996), the full TRC two years and eight months (February
1996 through October 1998), and the Guatemalan commission eighteen
months plus three months pre-staff preparation (August 1997 through
February 1999). While the South African and Guatemalan commissions
functioned for longer than prior commissions, they also had longer
historical periods to cover. The short official duration of truth commissions,
quite inconsistent with an assignment to discover the truth of a disputed
ch. 2, pt. 3, at 1a.
49. CEH, TOMO I,
note 24, at 86.
See, e.g.,
CRIMINAL GOVERNANCE 19 (2d. ed. 1997).
51. Posel,
note 22, at 29.
Mahmood Mamdani,
The TRC and Justice, in
note 2, at 640.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 15
period of history, necessarily limits the scope of the investigations and the
depth of their analysis.
The enabling legislation setting forth the powers of specific truth
commissions also has a significant impact on its functioning and findings.
Of the recent truth commissions, only the TRC has been given extensive
powers of subpoena, search, and seizurealthough the TRC utilized this
advantage very sparingly. None of the Latin American commissions was
granted the power to compel witnesses or perpetrators to come forward
with evidence, and they generally had considerable difficulty in obtaining
official written records from the government and armed forces.53 The quasi-
judicial power to grant amnesty to individual perpetrators assigned to the
TRC was also unprecedented although in the end it did not elicit the
detailed accounts from perpetrators and institutions that had been anticipated.
B. Balancing Truth-Finding with Other Objectives
Further, truth commissions have been vested with a wide range of responsi-
bilities ostensibly related to truth-finding, some explicit and others implicit.
The dilemma is that these tasks are quite different in nature and entail very
different approaches, some of which are likely to be in conflict with others.
Typically the mandate includes several of the following responsibilities:
establish an authoritative record of the past;
overcome communal and official denial of the atrocities, violence,
or abuses and gain official and public acknowledgment of them;
restore dignity to victims and promote psychological healing;
end and prevent violence and future human rights abuses;
create a collective memory or common history for a new future
not determined by the past;
forge the basis for a democratic political order that respects and
protects human rights;
identify the architects of the past violence and exclude, shame, and
diminish perpetrators for their offences;
legitimate and promote the stability of the new regime;
promote reconciliation across social divisions;
1 TRC,
note 11, at 54.
educate the population about the past; and
recommend ways to deter future violations and atrocities.54
Those who write commissions mandates seem to assume that a single
body vested with the responsibility to discover the truth about the past can
manage all or many of these responsibilities. However, these tasks are quite
different in nature, and some reflect divergent conceptions of truth and
approaches to truth-finding. Establishing an authoritative record of the past,
for example, requires an exhaustive research effort using scientific methods.
Documenting criminal action will depend on the relevant legal definitions
and specific juridical investigation techniques. In contrast, restoring dignity
to victims and promoting psychological healing calls for attention to the
subjective rather than objective dimensions of the work of a truth commis-
sion. Creating a collective memory or common history, nation building, and
educating the population emphasize the public dimensions and accessibil-
ity of the findings; but if the quality, representativeness or rigor of the
content are sacrificed, the gains of the commissions public dimensions may
be short-lived. Forging the basis for a democratic political order, legitimat-
ing and promoting the stability of a new regime, promoting reconciliation
across social divisions, or recommending ways to deter future violations all
involve the formulation of long-term public policy. Very little attention has
been paid to potential incompatibilities in these assignments and how they
affect the work of truth commissions.
C. Resources
Truth commissions typically have severe resource constraints. Nevertheless,
the magnitude of this problem varies quite considerably. At one end of the
spectrum, for example, the Haitian Commission probably operated on a
little more than $1 million, and the report complains that the lack of
sufficient funds greatly reduced their ability to complete their work.55 The
Guatemalan commission had a total budget of approximately $10 million,
very generous by truth commission standards. While the South African
commission also operated under strained financial conditions, its budget
was considerably greater than any other truth commission. The TRC
received something in the range of $28 million from the Treasury56 and
54. For lists of tasks assigned to various truth commissions,
see Parlevliet,
note 7, at
149; MINOW,
note 5, at 88.
note 24, ch. 3.
56. Calculated from figures in rand to dollars in the TRC report.
1 TRC,
note 11,
at 300.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 17
another $5 million from foreign donors.57 Consistent with its greater
financial resources, the TRC also had a much larger staff, over 400 persons
at its peak, several times the size of other commissions, and a separate
research department. In comparison, the staff size of the Guatemalan
commission was approximately 200 people; the Haitian commission was
composed of seventy-five persons.
D. Role of Commissioners and Staff
Those vested with the responsibility of establishing the truth come to the
task influenced by their life experiences, particularly in relationship to the
conflict, training, and current roles and status. No matter how qualified and
well-trained, commissioners and key staff members cannot be expected to
be completely neutral. At the least, their perspectives and training will
influence their priorities and approach. To highlight just a few consider-
ations, commissions have differed in whether their commissioners have
been selected from within (e.g., Chile, South Africa) or outside of the
country (e.g., El Salvador) or a combination thereof (e.g., Guatemala and
Haiti). Some commissioners are chosen in order to represent particular
ethnic or political constituencies, while others are chosen as nonpartisan
experts on key subjects. Whether commissioners choose a legal or social
science approach to truth-finding is also important.
Because human rights violations have been largely understood as
violations of law, the composition of most truth commissions favors
commissioners with legal training. Rather than providing balance, the mix
of social scientists (2) and lawyers (5) among commissioners at the CNVJ led
to repeated conflicts among them and contributed to a poor outcome. The
commissioners were equally divided between three foreigners who were
well-respected international jurists, and four Haitians who represented parts
of the government and important nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
There was also differences of approach in Guatemala between the
lawyers and social scientists among the commissioners (two lawyers and a
social scientist) and the staff. The foreign commissioner had previously been
a UN Special Rapporteur to Guatemala, and was clearly an expert. The two
Guatemalan commissioners were chosen to represent the countrys Ladino
and indigenous communities. Perhaps because Guatemalas intellectual life
has been dominated by anthropologists committed to intellectual pluralism,
or because human rights NGOs in Guatemala had extensive experience
See id.
at 31718. Both sums are calculated at current rand to dollar rates of exchange,
down from what they were during the life of the TRC.
mixing legal and social scientific approaches to investigation, or for some
other reason, the clash of perspectives proved fruitful at the CEH.
The TRC was unusual in the large number of commissioners, the
diversity of their professional backgrounds, and the central role of activists
and religious thinkers and clergy. Of the seventeen members, four came
from the religious community; five from medicine, psychology, and nursing;
seven from the law; three from politics; and three from NGOs. Nearly all of
them represented an identifiable political, sectoral, or ethnic constituency.
The chair, vice chair, director of research, and several other commissioners
all had religious backgrounds. And given the presence of Archbishop
Desmond Tutu as the Chair, some of its public hearings had a decidedly
religious character. Commentators pointed out that the hearings frequently
resembled a church service more than a judicial proceeding, with a definite
liturgical character.58 The Christian atmosphere and discourse of the TRC,
and particularly Archbishop Tutus frequent framing of issues in terms of
repentance and forgiveness, was applauded by many South Africans for
whom Christian ideals served as the basis for an ethical critique of
apartheid, but it was distasteful to others, including some of the commis-
sioners themselves.59 The latter category included both secular academics
and some victims who complained about the imposition of a Christian
morality of forgiveness.60
In addition to the question of their backgrounds influencing their
approach to truth-finding, the simple number of commissioners appointed
to the commission, and whether they work full or part-time, also influences
the kind of role that they are likely to play. In Haiti, three of the seven (later
six) commissioners lived abroad and visited only for brief meetings. The
Guatemalan commission had only three commissioners, all of whom served
on a part-time basis. The role of a small number of part-time commissioners
is necessarily strategic, to set policy and make major decisions, while senior
staff have the responsibility for implementing policy.
In contrast, the seventeen South African commissioners,61 all of whom
worked on a full-time basis, had tactical roles, with each of them directly
administering some office or aspect of the work of the Commission.62 It was
John de Gruchy, Redeeming the Past in South Africa: The Power of Truth,
Forgiveness, and Hope in the Pursuit of Justice and Reconciliation (June 1997) (a paper
presented at Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, Leipzig, Germany) (copy on file with
Lyn S. Graybill, South Africas Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Ethical and
Theological Perspectives (1997) (unpublished paper) (copy on file with author).
61. There were two resignations, so the TRC finished with fifteen commissioners.
1 TRC,
note 11, at 246.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 19
virtually impossible for such a large and deliberately diverse group to reach
consensus on specific issues or collectively coordinate the TRC. For
example, one commissioner resigned for substantive reasons, and another
issued a minority report.63 Furthermore, each commissioner administering a
committee or regional office was accountable only to the whole group of
commissioners; essentially, the commissioners were accountable to them-
selves. Staff were directly managed by commissioners who could change
direction or refocus attention very rapidly. This put senior staff in structurally
weak positions in that it was very difficult to plan work. In the words of the
TRC itself, [t]his explains the structural overlaps and operational duplica-
tion that occurred.64
Commissions also differ regarding whether their personnel configura-
tions are static or reorganized for different phases of the process. The
Haitian commission deployed eighty interviewers into the field for less than
two months; for the other months of its existence, only a small team of
analysts, support personnel, and the Haitian commissioners worked in the
organization. The TRC maintained the same organizational structure from
April 1996 until May 1998, with minor adjustments in August-September
1996.65 In contrast, the CEH went through continuous reorganization, with
five distinct structures from July 1997 through February 1999, although the
most technical areas (i.e., the database) were kept together.66 The chaos that
resulted from the CEHs constant reorganization prevented turf battles
simply because staff never had time to become accustomed to any given
The frequentor constantreorganization served the most important
benefit to the CEH by enabling it to cope with the most difficult challenge
which faces a commission. Commissions are never able to define the most
important thematic concerns until very late in the life of the organization.
How can a team of people investigate massacres if there is no common
definition of a massacre until the fieldwork is long complete? How can
several dozen analysts begin working on a report before the report has a
table of contents and identified core issues? It is difficult to manage
collective research without a written plan by which each subgroup knows
precisely what parts of the final product are its responsibility. The CEH
management team moved people rapidly from role to role, and created new
writing assignments for each team in waves. This management process
63. Christian de Jager resigned from the Commission but retained his seat on the Amnesty
Committee. Mapule Ramashala left the Commission for personal reasons. Wynand
Malan issued the minority report, see
at 43556.
at 254.
See id.
at 25859.
note 24, at 3640.
delayed decisions until facts had been gathered and due deliberation given,
but it provided short-term work assignments even before final decisions had
been made.67 This process, called the
model for drafting the report
(described in the Report section) was the central product of this manage-
ment strategy.
1. Legal versus Scientific Methods
In their first moments of existence, commissions must decide what they
intend to argue, or stated differently, what their working hypotheses will be,
and how data will be gathered to support the hypotheses. But what
commissions set out to doargue a case or test a hypothesisreflects
different epistemological and methodological perspectives. Commissions
often experience tensions between these two perspectives, legal arguments
versus social science evaluation. Commission lawyers will establish a set of
legal definitions about what constitutes a violation of a given norm from
domestic law, international human rights law, or international humanitarian
law. They may then seek examples, in the form of particular cases, which
demonstrate the violation of the norm in question. This kind of work seeks
to argue that a norm was violated, making the claim in the strongest possible
terms. By contrast, social scientists, who tend to be rare in truth commis-
sions, would ask how often was the norm violated, in absolute and
proportional terms? Was the norm violated more frequently in some
circumstances or during some periods than in others? Why might the norm
have been respected on occasion? And most importantly, how can we find
evidence to address these questions by methods which are not self-
Truth commissions are charged with broad objectives that require
answers to the social science questions posed above. By its mandate, the
TRC was directed to examine the nature . . . and extent of gross human
rights, looking at the context, motives, and perspectives which led to such
violation, and then identifying systematic pattern[s] of abuse.68 Similarly,
the CEH interpreted their work to require an examination of the causes and
origins of the internal armed confrontation, the strategies and mechanisms
of the violence and its consequences and effects.69 None of the broad
67. Note that the difficulty of drafting a report before the core themes were identified and
defined was one of TRC Commissioner Wynand Malans chief criticisms in his minority
5 TRC,
note 11, at 438 (he objected to drafting material before
reaching these agreements). The CEHs
method solved this problem, but it did
so by using an enormous amount of staff time.
TRC Act § 4.
1 TRC,
note 11, at 15864 (for a more detailed analysis
of the TRCs methodological needs).
69. CEH, Recommendations and Conclusions, Introduction.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 21
structural generalizations demanded by the mandate language of either
commission can be satisfied by a simple aggregation of cases, no matter
how many cases the aggregation includes, because the simple aggregation
of cases might exclude cases that would tend to contradict the generaliza-
tion. Instead, methods must be devised that would find evidence to confirm
or, if it exists, evidence that would contradict the assumptions with which
the commission began work. However, truth commissions do not usually
employ methods that would allow them to frame, test, and potentially reject
a series of hypotheses.
One way to make generalizations is to seek out all the cases and other
evidence which support the claim, and if there are enough such cases, and
if they are sufficiently dramatic, conclude that the generalization is valid. A
second method is to appoint an arbitrator, permit advocates and opponents
of a claim to each make the strongest possible arguments before the
arbitrator, and then allow the arbitrator to rule on the generalization. Both of
these methods are derived from legal and political procedure, and in fact,
these methods dominate decision making at truth commissions. As will be
discussed in the methods section below, the TRCs conclusion that all of
South Africas people (not only people of color, or Africans) were victims of
apartheid is apparently based on evidence marshaled by the first technique.
The CEHs conclusion that genocide was committed against some Mayan
communities by Guatemalan state forces was made (in part) after a series of
quasi-juridical internal debates that took place in 1998. The first method is
entirely vulnerable to the exclusion of information that does not support the
hypothesis. The second method is better but is nonetheless vulnerable to a
weak presentation of one of the two contending positions.
Scientific methods proceed quite differently. Beginning with an hypoth-
esis, the scientific method seeks data with which to test the hypothesis.70 For
example, to test the hypothesis that South Africans of all races suffered
under apartheid, a random selection of people of all races could be taken
and the proportion of each who suffered a gross human rights abuse
measured. If the proportions were roughly equal, the hypothesis would be
confirmed;71 otherwise it would be rejected. The randomness of the
selection of respondents protects the conclusion against the possibility that
70. This discussion uses a deductive method; inductive methods, in which theories are
generated from the data, are equally scientific. When used properly, deductive and
inductive approaches both insure that the data gathering and analysis methods do not
preordain the conclusion. The point is to keep separate the process of creating the
theory and the process of testing the theory with data, although the two steps can be in
either order.
71. In strict terms, science does not confirm hypotheses. Rather it is said that a test may fail
to reject the hypothesis, or that data are consistent with the hypothesis and apparently
inconsistent with competing hypotheses.
the evidentiary basis was constructed deliberately to support the conclu-
sion. The analysis of genocide would require a comparative measure of
rates of killing among groups hypothesized to be subjected to genocide and
similar rates among otherwise similar groups which are not thought to have
suffered genocide. If the killing rates were essentially the same among all
groups, then this would be evidence of a very violent moment, but not
genocide. However, if killing rates were much higher among the groups in
which genocide had been hypothesized, this finding would support the
genocide hypothesis.72 Not all scientific methods are statistical, obviously;
forensic methods, in particular, have been enormously useful to truth
commissions. But what scientific methods all share is the possibility of
finding the unexpected and refuting underlying assumptions. Legal and
other methods based on unsystematically collected evidence do not have
this characteristic.
Another difference between legal and social science generalization
methods is the relative importance each assigns to trends and patterns
versus individual cases. The TRC used the balance of probabilities
method by which something was judged true if there was more evidence in
favor than against.73 The balance of probabilities method, derived from civil
litigation, served the TRC well in judgments about individual cases. But the
TRC clearly lacked a method for making generalizations from the thousands
of findings made by this method. Although charged with finding systematic
patterns, the TRCs report almost exclusively makes findings on cases: there
is little broader macro analysis. Commissions prior to the TRC were not
much more successful elucidating or applying methods for systematic
generalizations. However, in Guatemala the CEH explicitly invoked a range
of social science disciplines, and a range of social scientists were employed
there.74 This may partly explain the CEHs greater relative success at
establishing macro findings.
Because truth commissions cannot investigate all potential cases or
events, they frequently choose representative or significant ones, what the
TRC referred to as window cases and the CEH called illustrative cases.
There are hundreds of window cases in volumes two and three of the TRC
report, spanning everything from deaths in detention to cases of arson. The
presentations range from one paragraph to four pages. The CEH chose its
eighty-five illustrative cases using the following criteria: that the case
showed an important tactical or strategic change of one or the other of the
note 24, fig. 4, at 255. However, the data on which
this analysis was based might have been biased. An evaluation of the possibility of bias
in these data found no basis,
see id.
tbl. 13 at 257, fig. 5 at 258.
, 5 TRC,
note 11, at 208.
note 24, at 52.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 23
parties;75 that by its seriousness, had a special impact on the national
conscience; or that it illustrated a particular pattern of violence for a region
or period.76 These cases, from ten to thirty pages in length, were chosen by
the legal method described above: they were chosen to make specific
points, not to test a generalization.
As has been mentioned, the public hearings held by the TRC were a
unique feature of the South African experience. Hundreds of hearings were
convened by different components of the TRC for different purposes. The
Amnesty Committee held hearings at which they questioned applicants and
made determinations about whether amnesty should be granted; the
Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee heard victims chosen from
among those who presented statements to the TRC, and to event hearings at
which particular historical episodes were considered in depth by calling
witnesses, victims, and alleged (or confessed) perpetrators; and ad hoc
sectoral hearings were called at which the conduct of particular social areas
were considered, such as the legal or medical sectors.77 The hearings
attracted massive public attention, both within South Africa (where they
were the subject of nearly daily press reports and a weekly television show)
and internationally. It is clear that the hearings were tremendously success-
ful at generating attention and debate about the violence of the past. It is less
clear that they provided objective data so that the debates about the broad
truths of the past could be resolved in ways that would withstand
subsequent criticism.
2. Data
Data are central to the process of truth-finding. A major task of truth
commissions is to collect and analyze critical data sources on which to base
their findings. Most truth commissions seek and create truth through
interviews with victims, witnesses, and survivors as a major source of their
data. An interview is an intimate interaction between a representative of the
commission and one or more deponents who tell their story. The presenta-
tion of information by respondents to the commission is guided by an
interview protocol designed to elicit empirical and narrative truth.
75. In the language of the CEH report, the parties were the parties to the Oslo Accord,
which was the CEHs mandate, i.e., the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity
(URNG) guerrillas and the Government of Guatemala.
note 24, at 64.
77. The findings of the sectoral hearings are presented in 4 TRC,
note 11. For
evaluations of the medical sector hearings, see LAUREL BALDWIN-RAGAVEN ET AL., AN
Leonard Rubenstein eds., 1998).
The National Commission on Truth and Justice in Haiti collected some
6,000 semi-structured interviews utilizing both closed and open-ended
questions. Perhaps surprisingly given its other problems, the Haitian
commissions fieldwork was excellent and culminated in a dozen area
reports, each of which was hundreds of pages long, combining statistics,
secondary materials, analysis of interviews, and direct investigations.78 The
Haitian commission also sponsored a series of forensic investigations of
mass graves undertaken by a multinational team of experts assembled by
AAAS. Unfortunately the deteriorating condition of many of the sites did not
render conclusive evidence. A third data source came from morgue records
from the University Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Comparing trends in morgue
admissions with the trends from interviews found that the two matched
almost identically, thereby validating the interviews as a good measure of
political violence. The Haitian commission did not hold any public
The CEH conducted 7,200 interviews. In rural areas populated prima-
rily by indigenous people interviews were sometimes conducted with
groups of people simultaneously; sometimes as many as fifteen people met
with the interviewer at the same time. This was the closest analogy to the
South African hearing model, but no public or members of the press were
present. There was also extensive secondary research by a team of
Guatemalan historians and public meetings and workshops to discuss
Because truth commissions are constrained by limited time and re-
sources, the availability of completed research on which they can build can
play an important role. In Guatemala, for example, there were teams of
forensic anthropologists, including an initial team founded and trained by
AAAS, that had been conducting exhumations of mass graves for seven
years prior to the commission. By specifying the cause and manner of death
of the victims, the reports of the forensic anthropologists clearly refuted
military claims about massacres.79 AAAS also worked with a coalition of
human rights groups to construct a database of violations. By the time the
truth commission began its work, this database had documented over
37,000 killings.80 A project sponsored by the Archdiocese of Guatemala
provided a third source.81 All of these data were made available to the truth
78. The area reports were discarded by the outside expert hired to write the final report. The
loss of the area reports was one of the greatest disappointments of the CNVJ.
See, e.g.
SÁNCHEZ, CHICHUPAC Y RÍO NEGRO (Ronaldo Sánchez ed., 2d. ed. 1997).
119 (1999).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 25
commission. Many of the cases in one of the three databases were not
replicated in the others.82 The pool of data sources that the CEH could draw
upon was far richer than it could have collected on its own, and the
combination of databases made possible a scientific estimate of the total
number of people killed in Guatemala.83 In South Africa there was also an
NGO project to present data to the TRC; the project was undertaken by a
coalition of NGOs and was known as the Human Rights Data Project.
However, two factors combined to reduce the impact of the Human Rights
Data Project on the TRCs analysis. First, the way the NGO data were
represented as a database weakened their statistical value because insuffi-
cient detail was recorded. Second, the TRCs lack of interest in macro-truth
meant that the kinds of statistical and comparative uses to which NGO data
were put in other commissions were less important to the TRC than to the
commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala.
The TRC conducted the most massive data collection effort in the
history of truth commissions, yet they collected only a fraction of what was
potentially available to it. One rationale for the amnesty provision was that
it would provide the TRC with data about the architects of apartheid and the
internal structures which implemented policy, but the results were disap-
pointing. Very few of the former apartheid leaders came forward to take
advantage of the offer of amnesty for full disclosure. The flood of applica-
tions just before the deadline came primarily from middle and low-level
functionaries responding to the successful prosecution of Eugene de Kock.
The TRCs own assessment was that:
the spirit of generosity and reconciliation enshrined in the founding Act was not
matched by those at whom it was mainly directed. . . . With rare individual
exceptions, the response of the former state, its leaders, institutions and the
predominant organs of civil society of that era, was to hedge and obfuscate.84
But the TRC itself made little use of the materials that came out of the
amnesty process. Not until 1998 did the amnesty application materials
become part of the TRC database, and as a result, the data from the Amnesty
process played almost no role in the substantive evaluations in the TRC
From the first meetings of the TRC, with the Amnesty Committee in
January 1996 and then with the Database Development Group in February
1996,85 the judges who composed the majority on the Amnesty Committee
82. Approximately 22 percent of all the deaths documented in the three projects were held
in two or more projects.
note 24, at tbl. 4.
note 24, at 7173; and CEH, TOMO XII, ANEXO III,
note 24.
84. 5 TRC,
note 11, at 196.
85. For a discussion of this groups role, see 1 TRC,
note 11, at 15861.
made clear that they would not permit the collection of the kind of data on
which a systematic evaluation of the structures of repression might be made.
These data, including perpetrators career histories, unit command struc-
tures across time, and other personnel information, had been precisely the
key to identifying the military units and particular officers most deeply
involved in human rights violations in El Salvador.86 Although the circum-
stances in South Africa seemed optimal for undertaking this kind of data
collection and analysis, the Amnesty Committees role as construed by the
judges was narrowly defined in a legal framework that admitted only
information precisely pertaining to the events for which applicants re-
quested amnesty. The focus on the actual cases and acts, but not on the
antecedents, causes, organizations, ideologies, and perspectives that gave
rise to the acts, was one of the most significant opportunities lost due to the
excessively legalistic approach that sometimes bedevils commissions. Be-
cause these data were not gathered, the analysis of the structure of
organizations that perpetrated state violence is brief and superficial.87 There
is no assessment of how particular units came to be as violent as they did,
nor how units evolved over time, nor how racist beliefs were indoctrinated
among new recruits. The concluding section of the report on the state only
details that communications links between contra-mobilization units in
the mid-1980s were regarded as as especially destructive.88 The TRCs
analysis section, like other parts of the report, is a listing of cases with little
discussion of why the cases occurred, how the structures changed over
time, and how individual perpetrators were socialized differently in differ-
ent parts of the state apparatus.
Even within the Human Rights Violation Committee, the quantity,
format, and quality of data were subject to conflicting goals. The original
interview protocol included narrative and structured components, similar to
the format used in Haiti and to the format that would later be used in
Guatemala. This model was scrapped at the initiative of one commissioner
in August 1996, five months after the original forms had been deployed, in
an effort to increase the rate at which statements could be takenthat is, to
reduce the time each statement giver spent with a representative of the
See, e.g.,
Todd Howland, El Rescates Contribution to the Salvadoran Peace Process:
Creative Legal and Information Processing Applications (unpublished paper on file with
AAAS describing the Indices of Individual Accountability Project). For the analogous
project undertaken by the Comisión de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador (CDHES),
available at
(visited 15 Nov.
2000) <>; Patrick Ball,
The Salvadoran Human
Rights Commission, in
note 30, at ch. 1.
2 TRC,
note 11, at 31324.
See id.
at 297.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 27
commission.89 The new protocol was dominated by closed-ended ques-
tions90 and greatly reduced the space available for interviewers to record
qualitative and narrative information. In an internal analysis, it was shown
that the number of words written for each interview declined, as was
intended by the format change. Data processors reported that the quality of
the interviews consequently declined, including increases in the rate of
missing data.91
Although narrowing the scope of the conversation with statement givers
would seem directly to contradict the TRCs goal to promote narrative truth,
the proponents of the reduced interview format argued that it would allow
more statements to be taken.92 In order for South Africans to become eligible
to receive reparations for gross human rights violations they suffered under
apartheid, the TRC had to find that this person was a victim under one or
several of the definitions set out in the TRC Act.93 The need to accumulate
the data required to make this administrative judgment about the maximum
possible number of people therefore competed directly against the truth
goals the TRC articulated in the final report. Narrowing the range of
information sought in the interview led to lower quality data in each
interview, thus diminishing the quality of the TRCs empirical data. The
shortened and tightly structured interview process may have seemed to the
statement giver more like a police interrogation than the original format
(which was organized more like a social work quasi-therapeutic interview),
and this change must have had negative implications for both narrative and
89. The TRC report describes the process as responding to technical difficulties analyzing
long and complex narrative statements, and the change as fine-tun[ing] the structure
of the protocol. 1 TRC,
note 11, at 139. However, in a review of the interview
process at the time of the change, regional differences in quality were shown, but no
systematic technical difficulties were found.
Patrick Ball, Evaluation of the
Commissions Information Flow and Database, with Recommendations, Memorandum
to the TRC, 9 Sept. 1996 (on file with author).
90. Staff pointed out that the new forms limited the information that could be recorded for
each victim such that each type of violation could be noted only once; this was
corrected in subsequent data processing by meticulously coding all the remaining
narrative text. This analysis was provided by Themba Kubekha, head data processor of
the Johannesburg office, at meetings of international human rights data experts held at
AAAS in May 1999. If the data representation error had not been corrected, it would
have introduced serious bias against counting violations that are more frequently
repeated, such as severe ill-treatment. For a discussion of this kind of data representa-
tion error, see
note 86, at ch. 2.
Gerald OSullivan,
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
Database Representation, in
note 30, at ch. 4.
92. This paragraph is based on the authors memory and notes of meetings in the TRC
during August-September 1996.
93. The Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee of the TRC was explicitly constrained to
provide only for victims referred to it by the Human Rights Violations Committee or the
Amnesty Committee.
TRC Act, art. 26.
restorative truth. It should be kept in mind that notwithstanding the truth-
damaging outcomes of the interview format change, the objective of the
change was to open the doors to more South Africans becoming eligible for
reparation, and so two laudable goals conflicted with each other.94 After a
few months, this format was in turn discarded and a third semi-structured
interview protocol was substituted.
3. Methods
The volume and complexity of the data sources truth commissions collect
require the application of rigorous and systematic methods. The information
analyzed in the report must fairly represent the narratives presented by
statement givers. Attempts to document the abuses and write official
histories need objective and compelling means to describe patterns among
tens of thousands of victims and violations, to evaluate the relative
proportions of responsibility for violations, and to estimate the total number
of victims killed or missing. The methodologies used play an important role
in shaping the nature of the data available to the commission, the
conclusions that can be drawn, and their validity and credibility. Informa-
tion management systems and social science research methods can help
make sense of data from thousands or tens of thousands of interviews
literally hundreds of thousands of pages of questionnaires and transcripts.95
Quantitative tools can help investigators understand history and the
story of human suffering in ways that would not have been possible using
testimonies alone. For example, the TRC used statistics to show that the
police were responsible for the overwhelming majority of killings before
1990.96 As an important step in the analysis of genocide in Guatemala, the
truth commission employed quantitative analysis to show that in several
crucial regions rates of indigenous people killed by the state were five to
eight times greater than rates among nonindigenous people.97
When both commissioners and senior staff lack background in quanti-
tative methods, they may not make full use of the potential analytic
capability of the commissions data and information management system.
94. This said, the commissioner who in August-September 1996 insisted on the elimination
of almost all narrative from the protocol, Wynand Malan, later complained in his
minority position that the TRC report contained insufficient qualitative analysis. It is
ironic that the data Mr. Malan would require for a qualitative analysis was precisely that
which his restructuring of the interview protocols attempted to eliminate in 1996.
note 11, at 455.
95. For case studies of data processing, database design, and statistical analysis in truth
commissions and NGO data projects, see Patrick Ball et al. eds.,
Making the Case
2 TRC,
note 11, fig. 17, at 176.
note 24, fig. 4 at 255.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 29
There was a considerable difference between the South African and
Guatemalan commissions in this regard. At the TRC, few of the commission-
ers had any experience using social science methods, and since the
publication of the report, some commissioners have criticized information-
intensive approaches to truth-finding as lacking utility. In a public speaking
engagement, for example, one of the commissioners attributed the creation
of the victim database to legal requirements and claimed that virtually no
use was made of these data.98
Although CEH commissioners and staff were not statistical experts, they
engaged the data constantly, so much so that a full-time statistical analyst
had to be hired to keep up with the demand.99 CEH researchers queried the
database for lists of case summaries that fit elaborately precise criteria.
Some CEH report chapters used precise statistical analyses, while others
compared CEH data to NGO databases given to the commission. It is
noteworthy that the first task upon every visit of the methodological advisor
to the CEH was to brief some or all of the commissioners on the statistical
patterns emerging from the testimonies.
Much of this difference can be explained by the dominance of hearings
in the TRC process. The public hearings captured the South African public
imagination, defin[ing] the parameters of truth-seeking,100 for over two
years. The hearings appeared on television, on radio, and were covered
nearly every day by newspapers.101 But the hearings included only about 8.5
percent of the more than 21,000 people who gave statements to the TRC. By
law, commissioners were required to make findings on all of the statements
given to the TRC, a mundane and tedious process. The intensity of the
hearings was such that the findings on statements were put off until the
closing moments of the TRCs life. Participating in the hearings simulta-
neously occupied every available moment of the commissioners lives and
prevented them from engaging with the mass of statements.102 Given the
commissioners quotidian participation in most aspects of the TRCs work,
this meant that almost no staff worked with the statements until the final
98. Yasmin Sooka made this claim in response to a question at the conference The TRC:
Commissioning the Past, held at the University of the Witwatersrand, June 1999. The
TRC report contains over 200 graphs.
Eva Scheibreithner,
The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification:
Generating Analytical Reports, in
note 30, at ch. 10.
100. Mamdani,
note 51, at 34.
ANTJIE KROG, COUNTRY OF MY SKULL (1998) (on the ubiquity and moral force of the
102. Ironically, the TRC understood this dilemma the other way around, that because of the
requirement that findings be made on statements, it became necessary to curtail the
public hearings.
5 TRC,
note 11, at 9. Malans minority report similarly
dismisses the statement finding process as distracting from the report writing.
months, except for those few staff actually engaged in taking statements or
data processing. In the last three or four months before the report was
published, with the hearings reduced to video and typed transcripts, TRC
researchers discovered the power of structured data. Only then were
statistics used on a broad scale, and even then, the statistics were used only
by the researchers.103
In Guatemala, the CEH had no primary data except from the interviews.
With no hearings to distract them, nearly the entire commissions attention
was focused on the interviews. The database was, by design, the easiest way
to access the interviews, and as a result, it was used intensively. This is not
to say that CEH staffers were happy with the database, but that their
complaints had a fundamentally different character than the complaints in
South Africa. CEH staffers complaints tended to be very specific demands
that the database should do a particular task that at that moment it did not
do.104 Complaints of this kind are indications that the tool is being used and
that it needs to be further refined. By contrast, at the TRC it was said
(constantly if vaguely) that the database is not working, but few people
had ideas or tasks they wanted to have done that any database would have
been capable of doing.
4. Report
The preparation and dissemination of a report play a central role in shaping
the truth communicated and disseminated by a specific truth commission.
The report should elaborate the truths required to fulfill the mandate, and it
should be written with a rigor and quality to withstand sustained criticism.
Yet the preparation of a report rarely receives the time and attention it
deserves. Often the level of fatigue and conflict among the staff and
commissioners is so considerable at this point that the commission begins to
disintegrate. Key figures in the life of the commission may no longer be
available or involved. Despite these limitations, and even if the report itself
is not a commissions most important product, the report is what a
commission leaves for history.
That the final reports of truth commissions vary considerably is clear
from a cursory review, but only some of these differences reflect careful or
conscious decisions. The Haitian commission provides the most extreme
103. Note that in the TRC report, graphs appear in Appendix 2 of the methodological chapter
(ch. 6) in vol. I, and in vols. II and III which were written by the Research Department.
There are no statistics in vols. IV or V, and the only quantitative analysis in vol. I was
used by the Information Systems Manager in his report.
1 TRC,
note 11, at
Sonia Zambrano,
The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification: Data-
base Representation and Data Processing, in
note 30, at ch. 12.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 31
example of terminal conflict and fatigue. Scheduled to complete the
fieldwork by August 1995 and produce the report by mid-December 1995,
the final report was actually transmitted to President Aristide in February
1996, a few months late. But the report submitted was extremely trun-
cated.105 It consisted of five pages of description of the modes of repression,
seven of the structures and perpetrators, and twenty-one of recommenda-
tions. Most of the report was a listing of the cases of the victims who were
identified, with several appendices based on supplementary research
conducted by AAAS consultants. Although extensive statistical analysis of
data from the interviews and from morgue records had been conducted,
these findings were not included. Instead the report printed the headings for
a few of the statistical tables without showing any of their data cells. This
embarrassing omission reflects the condition of the commission rather than
the intent of the drafters. In addition, there were serious problems with the
translation and production of the appendices, particularly the forensic
analysis of the exhumations of graves.
In part, the reduced report was the result of organizational collapse. But
the hiring of an outside expert in December 1995 to write the CNVJ report
also reflected deep disagreements among the commissioners about what the
report should say. The regional reports with their rich analytical and
contextual material (discussed above in subsection 2 on Data) were
excluded in favor of a superficial chronology constituting sixty-one of the
reports 105 pages. The analysis and synthesisa social scientific model
was eliminated in favor of a legalistic review of the facts.
The TRC report consists of five volumes. The first volume includes an
introduction by the Chair followed by philosophical and methodological
discussions and administrative reports. The second and third volumes
present chronologically organized overviews of perpetrating units and
geographic areas and were written primarily by a small group of staff, with
the Research Director playing the central role. The fourth volume reviews
findings from institutional and sectoral hearings. The final report provides a
preliminary list of victims, an interim report from the Amnesty Committee,
additional details on how the Commission made findings, and in chapter
six, the findings and conclusions of the TRC.
The TRC report presents substantially different conclusions in different
sections. It opensthe first paragraph on the first pagewith a statement by
Archbishop Tutu that South Africa is soaked in the blood of her children of
all races.106 His introduction turns on lists of incidents (e.g., paragraphs one
and twenty-nine) which seem carefully calibrated to include atrocities
CNVJ, SI M PA RELE: 29 SEPT. 199114 OCT. 1994 (1995).
106. 1 TRC,
note 11, at 1.
committed by a spectrum of perpetrators against a range of victims. Yet
some 2,500 pages later, in volume five, the TRC concludes that [t]he
predominant portion of gross violations of human rights was committed by
the former state through its security and law-enforcement agencies, and
[b]lack . . . youth were demonized as the enemy by the security forces in
particular.107 The difference between these positions is stark. The first is
focused on reconciliation, whereas the second is a broad empirical
conclusion. While both could be true in a literal sensethere were some
victims of every race, although black youth were by far the majoritythe
moral and empirical implications of the two sections are not consistent.
In direct contrast to the rhetorical foreword of the TRC report, the CEH
introduces their work with unequivocal conclusions. On 25 February 1999,
the report was published as a ninety-two page recommendations and
conclusions volume, of which more than 40,000 copies were immediately
distributed in Spanish and English.108 The first paragraph includes broad
statistical findings: that the CEH documented 42,275 victims, 83 percent of
whom were Mayan, 29,830 of whom were killed or disappeared. In
paragraph two, the CEH estimates that more than 200,000 people were
killed, and in paragraph three, they conclude that the violence was
fundamentally directed by the State against the excluded, the poor and
above all, the Mayan people, as well as against those who fought for justice
and greater social equality.109
The twelve volumes of the CEH report include most of the components
in the South African report, but with very different emphases: the adminis-
trative report, legal mandate, and technical functioning get less treatment
than in the South African report. The historical section is much more
detailed, but there are no geographic or chronological reports. The bulk of
CEH volumes two and three analyze specific kinds of violations such as
sexual violence against women and genocide. None of these sections is
strictly chronological. Instead, most sections begin with legal frameworks
for what the crime means, offer some statistical overview of what the CEH
found in this area (when and where it happened, against whom, and
committed by what organizations), and proceed to theoretical arguments
about how and why this kind of crime occurred. The expositions are based
on frequent quotations from testimonies and occasional graphs or other
statistics, as well as references to secondary materials.
107. 5 TRC,
note 11, at 212, 255.
108. For more discussion of this point, see the Dissemination section, below.
109. CEH, Conclusions and Recommendations, Introduction. Note that this was republished
as Tomo V of the complete report.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 33
Pages allocated Pages allocated
Section in the CEH report in the TRC report
The administrative report, legal Vol. 1, pp. 171 Vol. 1, pp. 48435,
mandate, and technical functioning Vol. 5, pp. 114
Historical context Vol. 1, pp. 77228 Vol. 1, 2443
Perpetrator analysis Vol. 2, pp. 18300 Vol. 2, pp. 1710
Geographic analysis N/a Vol. 3, pp. 1745
Analysis of specific Vol. 2, pp. 301518, N/a
violations & Vol. 3
The CEH and TRC reports were drafted in fundamentally different ways.
As described earlier, the TRC report is a compilation of essays written by
individuals, beginning with the Archbishops foreword, the discussion of
kinds of truth by senior staff, reports from technical and administrative staff
and consultants, researchers reports on perpetrators and areas, and then
reports by the commissioners who organized particular institutional hear-
ings. In contrast, the CEH report was written in repeatedly restructured
drafts, in which authorship of each section rotated among several people.
When the CEH office heads returned from the field in February-March
1998, they were immediately required to write extensive area reports, many
of which were several hundred pages long. These reports, called building
blocks (
) became the inputs for the first of several rounds of evolving
drafts of the report. Each geographic field report was then handed to new
teams formed during June-August to work on thematic areas. These reports
were then passed to new teams (in September-December) who wrote the
actual material published in the report. The final stage was guided by a
senior Coherence Advisor whose job was to assure that all the sections
followed the broad outlines of the commissioners analysis, and that the
sections did not contradict each other.
The CEH process could easily have collapsed: it required more than a
years time, dozens of analysts, and much, if not most, of the drafted
material was wasted (in the sense that it did not appear in the final report).
However, given sustained effort and sufficient time, money, and staff, the
CEH model proved to produce a more complete, consistent, and coherent
report than any other commission to date. The reports greatest achievement
is not the balance of evidence, the use of data, or its legal sophistication.
The reports tremendous strength comes from its simple unity of premise:
that the origin of the conflict and the overwhelming majority of violent acts
were the responsibility of the Guatemalan state. At the end of the day, it is
far easier to clarify history than to find truth and promote reconciliation
through public hearings.
The analysis of whether each commission was successful must be made
in its own terms. The TRC report should not be considered the TRCs only
product. Indeed, the TRC themselves describe the report as a report on their
activities, with the activitieshearings, primarilybeing the central focus
of their enterprise. If the impact of the TRC is to be evaluated, the hearings
should be the focus. The success of the CEH rests much more uniquely on
the reception and impact of the report because it was the Guatemalan
commissions only product.
Nonetheless there are several problems with the TRCs approach to
truth in their report. That the TRC commissioners believed that the process
by which the truth was reached and whether it affirmed the dignity of the
participants counted, perhaps as much as the actual outcome or findings,110
had obvious implications for their truth-finding. The zero-sum balance
between public hearings focused on reconciliation versus rigorous truth-
finding was debated openly within the TRC.111 However, the value of
empirical truthmacro and microwas debated less in terms of its long-
term impact on the culture of human rights and more in terms of fulfilling
particular articles in law that protected the TRC from legal attacks, although
South African victims and survivors of gross human rights abuses were
explicit that meaningful truth finding was a precondition to reconciliation.112
In general, the TRC failed to recognize the extent to which its various
approaches to truth conflict with one another and with reconciliation. Its
characterization of factual or forensic truth is an inadequate and impover-
ished rendition of what objective research entails and what it can contribute
to the analysis and findings of a truth commission. Nevertheless, it probably
reflects the attitudes of many of the commissioners. Archbishop Tutus
personal commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation and the presence of
others from a religious background likely shaped many other aspects of the
work of the TRC. It may account at least in part for the moral rather than
factual or analytic orientation of the report and its strenuous effort at fairness
that had the unfortunate effect of seeming to balance the systematic abuses
of the government with the occasional excesses of the ANC.113 The concern
with reconciliation may also be related to the reluctance of the TRC to
exercise its considerable powers of subpoena, search, and seizure, which
1 TRC,
note 11, at 114.
111. Personal communication with Charles Villa-Vicencio (Nov. 1999).
See also
Paul Van
Dilemmas of International Justice: The Case of South Africas Truth and Reconcili-
ation Commission
52 J. INTL AFF. 647 (1999).
Survivors Perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Suggestions
for the Final Report (June 1998) (submission to the TRC by Centre for the Study of
Violence and Reconciliation and The Khulumani Support Group, Johannesburg, South
113. On this point we differ from Jeremy Sarkin, who finds that the TRC produced a
relatively large amount of the truth . . . but very little reconciliation. Jeremy Sarkin,
Necessity and Challenges of Establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in
, 21 HUM. RTS. Q. 767, n. 317 (1999).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 35
were much stronger than those of most other truth commissions. It may have
contributed toward the process of reconciliation by emphasizing the
validation of the individual subjective experiences of those who had
previously been silenced or voiceless. In many cases, the reconciliation
achieved in the hearings is real. And whatever the criticisms of the process,
it is certain that for over two years, the TRC successfully focused South
Africas attention on the evils of the apartheid period such that no South
African can now claim that he or she does not know at least some of what
The CEH offers a very different model that was in our judgment more
successful than the TRC at establishing macro-truth. However, the Novem-
ber 1999 elections resulted in a landslide victory for the party of General
Efraín Ríos Montt, who was the dictator responsible for many of the most
egregious atrocities of the early 1980s. Guatemalans elected the Generals
party only a few months after the presentation of the report in which his
government was indicted for acts of genocide. Given this outcome, it is not
clear what positive political impact the CEHs report may have had, no
matter how rigorous the report may have been. But the CEHs lessons should
be noted, and a new book by the UN Office of Project Services for
Guatemala examines the lessons in detail.114
E. Dissemination
Acknowledgment, the translation of a private into a public truth, requires
widespread dissemination of the findings of a truth commission. Here too
truth commissions differ. Again the experience of the Haitian National
Commission for Truth and Justice testifies to its breakdown. The final report
transmitted to President Aristide during his last hours in office in February
1996 was not published until September 1996, and then only seventy-five
copies were made. Conflicts between the supporters of Aristide and the
administration of President René Preval made the report something of an
embarrassment for President Preval. A second edition of 1500 copies was
published in March 1997, but these were circulated only in Haiti.115
Although the TRC placed a considerable emphasis on its processes and
findings being publicly accessible, its strategy for disseminating its report
fell far short of this standard. Its five-volume report was released coincident
with its public presentation, but it was published by an outside printer rather
114. U.N. Office of Project Services for Guatemala (forthcoming).
115. AAAS placed a copy of the CNVJ report in the Library of Congress.
See also
the CNVJ
report (visited 15 Nov. 2000) <>.
than the government press. As a consequence, the set was priced well
beyond the means of most South Africans. The Truth Commission also
placed the full text on an open web site, but only for a limited period of
time. Its agreement with its publisher, CTP Book Printers, precluded a long-
term posting on the Internet because it would have decreased sales for the
print version. The original plan was to have a writer or journalist prepare a
one volume summary for the general public, but eighteen months after the
submission of the official report, this popular version has yet to surface.
In contrast, the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification had
a coordinated strategy for public dissemination of its findings. It printed
42,000 copies of the CEHs conclusions and recommendations (in English
and Spanish) that were disseminated on the day of the reports presentation
to the Parties of the Peace Accord. Simultaneously with the presentation in
printed form, the full text of both the English and Spanish recommendations
and conclusions was placed on the Internet.116 Copies were distributed to
the press, libraries, universities, and other sites at the same time. The Sunday
following the public presentation, major newspapers in Guatemala carried
supplements with much of the text of the summary. A week later the full text
of the report was posted on a permanent dedicated web site, and notices of
its availability and how to access it placed on other Internet sites focusing
on Guatemala and newspapers. The first five volumes of the complete
report were published in Guatemala in July 1999, and the seven supple-
mental annex volumes were published in October.
The difference in dissemination between the South African and Guate-
malan commissions may be the difference between choosing a private
sector publisher and a public sector publisher. The private sector publisher
in South Africa has removed the report from the Internet, priced it at levels
unreachable for most South Africans and for many internationals, and
generally restricted the circulation of the information.117 In Guatemala, the
UN Office of Project Services (UNOPS) has given away tens of thousands of
summary volumes, donated hundreds of complete sets to schools, libraries,
and NGOs, and financed the publication of an indexed and hyper linked
CD-ROM which was given away and sold for a nominal price.
How commissions arrive at their findings is deeply if subtly influenced by
how they gather their information. The methods, focus, and availability of
CEH Report (visited 15 Nov. 2000) <>.
117. A CD-ROM version of the report is now available, but only with the purchase of a
complete set of the print volumes, at a cost of several hundred U.S. dollars.
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 37
data all shape the ultimate conclusions. This process is beset by complexity
and countervailing pressures, and the responses of the commission to these
pressures occasionally create biases and inconsistencies. All commissions
suffer from biases of this kind, as the examples below make clear.
A. Misspecifying Historical Patterns at the CEH
One of the core concerns in an assessment of macro-truth is to identify
when violence occurred. Fewer than 2 percent of the 24,910 killings
documented by the CEH occurred in the period 19601977.118 Yet in the
CEH projection of the total number of dead, about 13.6 percent of the
estimated killings occurred in this period; in effect, the CEH undercounted
killings before 1977 by more than a factor of six.119 Undercounted, in this
context, means more than simply not having statistics on these people. Their
stories were not heard, which means that the social conflicts in which these
people were killed were not documented by primary sources, and conse-
quently played a less prominent role in the analysis than would have been
true with unbiased data collection. What happened?
The killings omitted from the CEHs testimonies and statistics occurred
during the late 1960s and early 1970s and were focused on rural
agricultural workers in the eastern departments of Zacapa and Izabal, as
well as in the flat areas of the southern coast. The primarily Ladino (i.e., not
indigenous) workers were organizing trade unions, and the developing
authoritarian state practiced its first counterinsurgency tactics against them.
Approximately 22,000 people were killed between 1960 and 1977.120
There are three interrelated reasons that these killings were not well
covered by the CEH. First, the political structures in which the victims had
been organized were, in the Guatemalan term, disarticulated. That is, the
repression had succeeded in killing enough people that those few who
survived left the areas and stopped participating in political activism. The
CEH depended strongly on political groups to organize their social bases to
give testimonies (by arranging transportation from remote areas, food, social
support). Social sectors that were no longer organized were less able to
note 24.
note 24, at 7273. Note that this is an analysis of all deaths, not
just arbitrary executions which are the standard category in the report. This analysis
does not include disappearances.
See also
bring their people to the commission. Relative to the victims of the 1968
and 1971 killings, the victims of the early 1980s were well-organized.
Second, during the killings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, there
were very few human rights NGOs in Guatemala around to monitor and
document, nor were there many international groups that could focus
international attention. There were a few groups documenting state vio-
lence in the late 1960s,121 but ten to fifteen years later, the relatively much
greater number of domestic and international NGOs assured that most
human rights violations would eventually be documented.
Partly as a result of the extensive documentation by civil society of the
atrocities of the early 1980s, partly by the sheer enormity of the killings, and
partly due to the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Rigoberta Menchú
and the educational campaigns in indigenous communities about 500 years
of European colonialization, the 1990s version of the story about human
rights violations in Guatemala is about violence in the Western highlands in
the early 1980s (i.e., violence against communities populated primarily by
indigenous people). The CEH was affected by this, and with its conclusions,
the CEH helped to ratify this finding. The historical analysis in the report
attempted to rectify the statistical misspecification, and the late 1960s
violence is covered in the narrative of events. But the earlier period does not
strongly influence the analysis of specific kinds of human rights violations
nor how specific perpetrating units evolved.
This bias does not fundamentally change the story told by the CEH. The
number of people killed in the 1968 and 1971 period was certainly many
fewer than those killed 1979 and 1982. However, the example suggests
how, even after elaborate and sophisticated investigations and carefully
inductive report drafting, a truth commission may ultimately confirm the
implicit hypotheses with which they begin. The TRC provides another
example of this problem.
B. Bias from Overdependence on Hearings at the TRC
The primary method by which the TRC elicited social and dialogue truth in
their effort to promote restorative truth was by means of public hearings at
which victims or survivors gave testimony. But if more than 21,000 people
gave statements, and only 1,818 appeared in hearings, how did the TRC
choose the people who appeared in hearings? The TRC report claims that
hearings should reflect accounts from all sides of the political conflicts of
TO 1996 (1999).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 39
the past, and that women, men, and youth should all be heard.122 TRC staff
often commented on the commissioners intense interest in finding white,
Asian, and colored people to appear. Since hearing time was limited,
emphasizing representation from some groups necessarily meant less time
and fewer appearances for other groups.
Table 1, below, confirms the anecdotal observations and the TRC policy
noted above. Column A shows the relative population proportions of each
of South Africas racial categories, indicating for example, that Africans
constitute 76.1 percent of all South Africans. Columns B and C show the
number and proportion of statements given to the TRC by members of each
racial category: Africans gave 89.9 percent of all statements, while whites
gave 1.1 percent of statements. Columns D and E show the number and
proportion of hearing appearances by the racial category of the person
appearing. So, for example, 87.5 percent of all people who appeared in
hearings were African. Column F combines columns B and D. It shows the
proportion of all statement-givers who appeared in hearings. Thus while 8.3
percent of African statement-givers appeared in hearings, 36.4 percent of
white statement-givers appeared in hearings.
The dramatic outcome in Column F, that white statement-givers were
roughly four times as likely to be selected to appear in hearings as African
122. 5 TRC,
note 11, at 56.
1 TRC,
note 11, at 168.
See also
, AAAS/CSVR Transcript Analysis Project,
note 23.
Relative and Absolute Numbers of Statements and Hearing Appearances at the TRC,
by Racial Category
Percent of
Number of Percent of Number of Percent of statement-
statements statements appearances appearances givers in
Population given by given by in hearings in hearings hearings
of group each group each group from group from group (D/B)
African 76.1% 19,144 89.9% 1,590 87.5% 8.3%
Coloured 8.5% 354 1.7% 93 5.1% 26.3%
White 12.8% 231 1.1% 84 4.6% 36.4%
Asian 2.6% 45 0.2% 23 1.3% 51.1%
Unspecified 0.0% 1,523 7.2% 28 1.5% n/a
Total 100.0% 21,297 100.0% 1,818 100.0% 8.5%
data from columns A and B are from TRC, vol. 1, p. 168; data from column D come from
the AAAS/CSVR Victim Transcript Analysis Project (see text); columns C, E, and F are
statement-givers, is the product of a complex process. Note that Africans are
over represented among statement-givers, relative to their proportion of the
South African population (Column A), and other groups are correspondingly
under represented. However, as the TRC report argues:
If the conflicts of the past had affected the population groups equally, one
would expect that the numbers of deponents in each category would be
proportionate to the national population. However, the table shows that the
number of deponents [i.e., statement-givers] who described themselves as
African is much higher than would be expected from the population statistics.
. . . [And t]he reality is that the conflicts of the past affected very few whites in
comparison to the rest of the population, so very few came forward to make
Despite this recognition in the report, the TRC commissioners empha-
sized the appearance in hearings of non-Africans, selecting them preferen-
tially from among statement-givers. This emphasis was likely one of the
effects of Archbishop Tutus belief (in effect, treated as a working hypothesis)
that South Africa is soaked in the blood of her children of all races.125 The
effort to show victims of all races may make sense if the objective is to
balance hearing appearances as much as possible to represent the popula-
tion of South Africa, and this effort itself may be the logical outcome of a
strategy to organize hearings in order to promote reconciliation.
However unintentionally, the emphasis on selecting non-Africans cre-
ated an unequal opportunity for Africans to appear in hearings, exacerbat-
ing the resentment many statement-givers felt at not being tapped for
hearings. This resentment has been problematic for the long-term achieve-
ment of restorative truth.126 More directly, the racial imbalances between
statement-givers and hearing appearances damaged empirical truth. By
giving white victims space in hearings far beyond their proportion of
statement-givers and out of proportion to their level of victimization, the
TRC created the truth that the children of all races suffered violations
more or less equally. Balancing victim groups also balanced perpetrator
groups, and consequently created the impression that all the political actors
committed violations in more or less equal ways. The moral equivalence
among perpetrating parties and among victim groups implied by the choices
124. 1 TRC,
note 11, at 16869.
at 1.
126. The TRC recognized that people not selected for hearings resented the exclusion, but
the report does not consider the disproportionate effect the selection process may have
had on Africans and thus on social truth.
See id.
at 6;
see also
Hugo van der Merwe, The
South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Community Reconciliation: a
Case Study of Duduza, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation Working
Paper (1998).
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 41
of victims to appear in the hearings and in the Archbishops reconciliation-
focused foreword to the report were so powerful that the detailed histories
in volumes two and three, and the unequivocal conclusions in volume five
are insufficient to overcome them. The lack of clarity, equivocal positions,
and the lack of connection between the TRCs impressive body of evidence
with the findings in the report have made it vulnerable to politically
motivated critiques127which is perhaps the worst outcome for a commis-
sion charged with articulating the truth.
This article has explored the nature of the truth that truth commissions are
mandated to find and the factors affecting the process of truth finding.
Clearly, the documentation and interpretation of truth is considerably more
complex and ambiguous than many analysts of truth commissions as-
sumeproponents and critics alike. Far from being generic bodies, truth
commissions have very different approaches to the kind of truth they are
seeking. Their official mandates, the perceptions and priorities of their
commissioners and key staff, the methodological orientations utilized, and
the level of resources available shape the nature of their findings and the
type of report they produce. Decisions made by those working within a
specific truth commission regarding how they organize their work and
perform their tasks may also have important consequences for truth-finding.
What then are the implications of the analysis in this article? What kind
of truth can and should truth commissions seek? First, it is our view that
truth commissions are far better suited to pursue what we have termed
macro-truth, the assessment of contexts, causes, and patterns of human
rights violations, than micro-truth dealing with the specifics of particular
events, cases, and people. To be able to make macro-determinations
requires utilizing more of a social science than a legal approach to truth
finding. Second, we believe that truth commissions should focus on the
objective rather than the subjective dimensions of truth. Doing otherwise
amounts to confusing process and outcome.
Patterns, trends, tendencies, and the big picture are often the pieces
most missing from the history of transitional societies. Victims and their
communities know quite a bit about the daily micro-processes of persecu-
tion and abuse: they lived it, after all. Although many victims and their
survivors may want acknowledgments from perpetrators or the details of
127. For an example of such a critique, see ANTHEA JEFFERY, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE TRUTH COMMISSION
particular stories, they also want a sense that they were not alone, and that
the perpetrators were not a few bad apples, but rather that an entire legal,
ideological, political, and military system was responsible for years, or
decades, of human rights violations. This broad explanation should not be
left to scholarly debate, but should be the core of a commissions work.
The micro-level truths, the forensic or microscope truth, are important:
the facts must be gotten right. However, commissions are not particularly
good at determining the details of hundreds or thousands of cases. They lack
the time, staff, and resources to undertake such a massive investigatory task.
Moreover, when a commission does make micro-truth findings, inevitably
there are likely to be errors, which in the aggregate have little or no effect on
the macro-truth. But these errors provide critics with a basis for claiming
that the entire process is discredited. Beyond a small number of illustrative
cases and a limited number of hearings on events or institutions, micro-level
truth should be better left to judicial tribunals which specialize in weighing
evidence, on a case-by-case basis.
Three of the forms of truth identified by the TRC (narrative truth, social
truth, and restorative truth) are each important goals of a truth commission,
and they deserve substantial attention. But these are subjective, not
objective. They are process goals, not forms of truth. The distinction
between the subjective and objective components of truth commissions
does not denigrate the importance of subjective processes to validating
victims experiences and ultimately contributing to reconciliation. However,
the conflation of the subjective with objective truth-finding weakens the
political and moral importance of truth by making truth a matter of personal
opinion, and not the product of verifiable scientific best practices.
A. Recommendations
Our analysis in this paper leads to the following recommendations:
1. Mandate: The mandate should specify that the function of the
Commission is to make broad findings about the antecedents,
causes, patterns, trends, perpetrators motives, and impact on
victims of the period of violence being studied. The mandate should
explicitly specify that the findings of the Commission must be based
on legal and scientific best practices to ensure that working
assumptions are tested and that the findings will be robust to
sustained and informed criticism.
2. Commissioners: Commissioners should play a strictly advisory role.
That is, they should not participate in the day-to-day operations of
the commission, but instead should function as a governing board in
2001 The Truth of Truth Commissions 43
setting policy, making broad determinations, and guiding the
Commissions strategy. To promote their focus on strategic issues
(and not on tactical concerns), there should be relatively few
commissioners, and they should work part-time.
3. Staff: Staff should be professional and entrusted with the quotidian
operations and all technical questions of the commission. They
should be drawn from a variety of intellectual disciplines with an
emphasis on qualitative and quantitative rigor.
4. Attribution of responsibility for violations: The goal of the Commis-
sion should be primarily to identify institutions, parties, structures,
and ideologies that permitted or committed gross human rights
violations. Only secondarily should a Commission identify particu-
lar individuals who played roles in the abuses. The attribution of
responsibility should be centered on the broad proportions or
patterns of specific violations attributed to the various parties to the
conflict, rather than excessive attention to one or a few illustrative
5. Function of the findings: The findings of a commission, made via
event or sectoral hearings or other public processes as well as in the
final report, must be unequivocal, massive, objective, and undeni-
able, and made according to scientific best practices. The findings
should be victim-centered, telling the story from their point of view
and validating their experiences. A truth commission cannot by itself
change the future of a democratizing nation. But at the very least, a
commission must present a narrative that becomes the central
component in the debates about the past which shape the future.
... This narrative is woven through critiques that explain the shortcomings of specific ICs -such as the classic cases of the Argentine CONADEP, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and others -as a consequence of problems faced or mistakes made during the phases of implementation, the collection and management of data and the writing of the final report. This narrative largely dominates a predominantly empirical literature with a problem-solving orientation and a focus on learning lessons and disseminating best practices (Thomas 1994;Hayner 2011Hayner , 2018Francesca and Payne 2012;Sikkink and Marchesi 2015;Chapman and Ball 2001;Bickford 2007;Stahn 2005;Zvobgo 2019;Mark 2006). It provides the central undertone of reports published by major consultancies and civil society monitoring groups 4 and even intersects with the work of critical scholarship, normally centred on other aspects of ICs (Wilson 2001;Leebaw 2011). ...
Full-text available
Can public inquiries and truth commissions provide a space for political transformation? This article investigates the field of transitional justice to address this question, focusing on pessimistic accounts of the persistent failure of truth-telling practices. It identifies three main narratives on why truth commissions fail to promote change, namely the failure of implementation, failure of design and failure by design narratives. This article contends that none of these narratives satisfactorily answer the question raised by this special issue due to their attachment to a referentialist ontology and a linear temporality of truth-seeking. Combining Rancière’s critique of political philosophy with insights from Lacanian psychoanalysis, the article advances a radical theory of accountability capable of circumventing these limitations and elucidating the links between truth-telling and political transformation. Based on an anti-foundationalist approach, this theory sees the work of truth commissions as situated in struggles that constitute the after-maths; the process of counting the parts of a conflict (victims, perpetrators, collaborators) and making suffering count (as violence) by attaching it to an object source (a cause). Seen in a radical light, truth-telling appears trespassed by two organizing principles: the management of monstrosity (as a regime of visibility that formalizes suffering and apportions blame and culpability) and the inevitable miscount of the identities that populate the victim-perpetrators spectrum. The article argues that investigative commissions are doomed to fail, but it is thanks to this failure that they can offer a space for political transformation.
... Participant grievances may, from a programmatic perspective, seem irrelevant as international policymakers, and to some extent researchers, often evaluate TCs based on mandates and goals that reflect the priorities of international actors. These markers of success include strengthening liberal democratic norms (Brahm 2007;Chapman and Ball 2001;Minow 1998;Olsen et al. 2010), preventing recurrence of conflict (Lie, Binningsbø, and Gates 2007;Loyle and Appel 2017;Snyder and Vinjamuri 2003), or establishing a national, historical narrative of the previous war (Bakiner 2016;Hayner 2011). However, as for most types of international peacebuilding interventions, TCs are subject to demands and expectations from multiple and often contradictory audiences (Gippert 2016;Von Billerbeck and Gippert 2017;Whalan 2017). ...
Full-text available
There is a growing awareness that truth commissions (TCs) often leave victim and ex-combatant participants aggrieved. This is problematic since it can undermine support for peace processes. When attempting to explain such shortcomings, previous research has not paid sufficient attention to the patrimonial sources of TC-participants’ frustration. We argue that such forms of disenchantment are largely caused by internationalised TCs’ patrimonial mode of working, utilising tactics such as motorcades as manifestations of power and brokers to mobilise witnesses. To highlight the relevance of our argument, we use the work of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example.
In 2018, the Norwegian Parliament appointed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the Norwegianisation policy and injustice against the Sámi and Kven/Norwegian Finns. We focus on the commission’s public engagement, and emphasise Sámi and Kven/Norwegian Finns’ perceptions and expectations in relation to these efforts. The mandate’s goal is to establish a common understanding of the past and broader knowledge about our common history. We ask how the Norwegian trc made use of the scope of action provided by its mandate’s outreach elements and conclude that there is a discrepancy between the expectations arising from the mandate and the actual public engagement of the commission. We distinguish between the interactive processes of coordinating among policy actors and communication between political actors; and ‘micro-truth’ as personal narratives and ‘macro-truth’ as framework for public structures. The research is based on document studies, the study of recorded open meetings and media, and interviews.
Cezalandırıcı ve dağıtıcı adalet sistemlerinden kavramsal ve pratiksel olarak farklılaşan onarıcı adalet sistemi, bir suç karşısında adaletin tesis edilmesi için failin cezalandırılmasından öte mağdurun zararının tazmin edilmesini esas alır. Onarıcı adalet anlayışına göre suç, devlete ve kanuna karşı değil; bireye ve topluma karşı işlenmektedir. Dolayısıyla, onarıcı adalete göre, failin ve mağdurun aynı düzlemde bir araya getirilip diyalog ve anlaşma çerçevesinde uzlaştırılması esastır. Onarıcı adalet anlayışına göre, diyalog ve uzlaşma çerçevesinde sadece mağdurun zararının tazmin edilmesi yeterli değildir. Aynı zamanda failin iyileştirilerek gelecekte bu suçu bir daha işlememesine yönelik kökten bir çözüm arayışı temel alınmaktadır. 1970’li yıllardan itibaren modern hukukta yer edinmeye başlayan onarıcı adalet anlayışına başvuran en önemli mekanizmalardan biri hakikat ve uzlaşma komisyonlarıdır. Hakikat komisyonları, otoriter rejimlerden, iç savaşlardan, soykırımlardan ve ağır insan hakları ihlallerinden çıkan toplumların geçmişleriyle yüzleşmeleri ve demokratik bir geleceğe ulaşmaları için bir geçiş dönemi süreci sunmaktadır. Bu çalışma, onarıcı adalet anlayışının uygulama alanı bulduğu hakikat komisyonlarının insan hakları ihlallerinin incelenmesindeki işlevini irdelemekte ve bu komisyonların kurulmasının gerekliliğini sorgulamaktadır. Onarıcı adalet anlayışına ve hakikat komisyonlarına yöneltilen eleştirilerden ve bugüne kadar onarıcı adalet anlayışıyla kurulan hakikat komisyonları deneyimlerinden hareketle, bu çalışma cezalandırıcı adalet sistemiyle onarıcı adalet sisteminin bir arada işletilmesini önermektedir.
Full-text available
This piece examines the case of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's family Versus Federal Government of Nigeria on the issue of human rights abuse done by "Unknown Soldiers" with a view to provoke discourse on the contemporary notion of transitional justice. The injustice against Kuti's Family culminated in unlawful arrest, detention and torture of Nigerian Afrobeat artist/human rights crusader, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The study focuses on the effects of his properties destruction, rape of girls and women that inadvertently arrested in his apartment, and the death of the matriarch of Anikulapo Kuti's family during raid at the Kalakuta Republic (his home's name) in the early 80s. The work argues that while Truth Commission Panels such as the Oputa Panel tried to create safe, non-partisan and compassionate space to address the justice question, the honest and true intent of the political gladiators for setting up the Commission was doubtful, ab nitio; hence this created an atmosphere of impunity with glaring trivialisation of violations and abuses done to the family, and at the end it becomes doubtful if the justice for which the Truth Commission was setup , was ever addressed. It also questioned how truth commissions should be established and operated so as to deliver justice-an aspect of peace studies that scholars have completely overlooked. It concludes that as people reconfigure social relations from one stage to another in their lives, their engagement with the state and the social meaning attributed to social justice, which the people emphasised, are most likely to be affected, and thus change especially within their spatial context.
Technical Report
Full-text available
An evaluation of Plan International's activities on Haïti, as an answer to critique in the media. It shows how expensive chil adoption on a distance in fact is.
Countries undergoing or recovering from conflict and authoritarianism often face profound rule of law challenges. The law on the statute books may be repressive, judicial independence may be compromised, and criminal justice agencies may be captured by powerful interests. How do lawyers working within such settings imagine the law? How do they understand their ethical obligations towards their clients and the rule of law? What factors motivate them to use their legal practice and social capital to challenge repressive power? What challenges and risks can they face if they do so? And when do lawyers facilitate or acquiesce to illegality and injustice? Drawing on over 130 interviews from Cambodia, Chile, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, and Tunisia, this book explores the extent to which theoretical understandings within law and society research on the motivations, strategies, tactics, and experiences of lawyers within democratic states apply to these more challenging environments.
Full-text available
Scholars of state classification practices have long interrogated how official legal categories are constructed. This paper analyzes the construction of “victimhood” in Colombia as a feat that required negotiation among international human rights organizations, local civil society actors, and politicians across the partisan spectrum. The Victims’ Law of 2011, which sought to provide widespread reparations to victims of the civil conflict, originated from the concerns of the human rights community, yet the deliberation process leading up to the law’s passage reveals the extent to which elite historical narratives of the conflict unduly narrowed the universe of eligible victims. Using archival evidence from congressional debates from 2007 to 2011, this paper argues that the broad conception of victimhood originally inherited from United Nations guidelines came to be constrained by disproportionate influence from politicians’ personal understandings of conflict history, shaped by anecdote and the selective use of historical evidence. These rationales interacted with budgetary constraints to ultimately restrict the victim category according to negotiated temporal boundaries of the conflict.
Full-text available
This article examines the rationale for the establishment of the defunct Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission (the Commission) and the challenges it faced in its efforts to help end impunity, restore the ruptured social fabric, and ensure democratic transition. To this end, the article relies on analysis of relevant literature, comparative case studies, and interviews with experts. Ethiopia is a deeply divided society, one characterised by ethnic division, cycles of violence, a pervasive culture of impunity for heinous crimes, competing historical narratives, and polarised political discourse. The Commission was bestowed with ambitious mandates and functions. Among its formidable challenges were a legitimacy deficit; the prevalence of competing narratives; vaguely defined mandates; and the complexity of the reconciliation process. Ultimately, the Commission failed to deliver on any of its promises.
Taking stock of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe, this volume explores how these societies have grappled with the serious human rights violations of past regimes. It focuses on the most important factors that have shaped the nature, speed, and sequence of transitional justice programs in the period spanning the revolutions that brought about the collapse of the communist dictatorships and the consolidation of new democratic regimes. Contributors explain why leaders made certain choices, discuss the challenges they faced, and explore the role of under-studied actors and grassroots strategies. Written by recognized experts with an unparalleled grasp of the region's communist and post-communist reality, this volume addresses far-reaching reckoning, redress, and retribution policy choices. It is an engaging, carefully crafted volume, which covers a wide variety of cases and discusses key transitional justice theories using both qualitative and quantitative research methods.
In countries emerging from periods of great political turmoil, particularly turmoil associated with gross violations of human rights, the question of how to deal with the past has been a crucial part of the transformation process. The issue is: how does a society return to any sort of normality when two neighbors living side by side are, respectively, victim and perpetrator of heinous crimes? Perhaps nowhere else in the world is this question more vital or more difficult than in Rwanda, the small, poor, rural, inland African state that became the site of one of the bloodiest genocides ever known. This article advocates the establishment of a commission in Rwanda as a means of beginning reconciliation and rebuilding a unified country. Although Rwanda presents many daunting challenges for a truth and reconciliation commission, or any other process that would promote unification and tolerance, it is appropriate for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ongoing animosity and retributive violence between the current and former governments and their respective followers is evidence that the status quo is not working. Secondly, the Rwandan Government is not equipped to channel all responsible parties through the traditional legal system. Finally, a properly constituted commission would generate public awareness of what really happened.
The findings of the sectoral hearings are presented in 4 TRC, supra note 11 For evaluations of the medical sector hearings, see
  • Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven Et
  • An Ambulance
  • The
  • Colour
  • Health
  • Professionals
  • And Human Rights
  • Ethics
  • South
The findings of the sectoral hearings are presented in 4 TRC, supra note 11. For evaluations of the medical sector hearings, see LAUREL BALDWIN-RAGAVEN ET AL., AN AMBULANCE OF THE WRONG COLOUR: HEALTH PROFESSIONALS, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ETHICS IN SOUTH AFRICA (1999); HUMAN RIGHTS AND HEALTH: THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID (Audrey Chapman & Leonard Rubenstein eds., 1998).
  • Patrick See
  • Al Ball
  • State
  • Violence
  • Guatemala