Do truth commissions produce accurate records of the past?

To follow is an excerpt from this month's CQ Global Researcher report on "Truth Commissions" by Jina Moore, January, 2010.

Truth commissions are designed to provide countries and their people with a single, official version of a controversial past, based on thousands of interviews. But experts say getting an official version of the truth is not always the same as getting an accurate picture of the past.

“They should be called ‘fact and fiction commissions,’ or ‘some-of-the-truth commissions,’” quipped a long-time observer of truth commissions. [Footnote 17]

There are limitations on what truth commissions can discover. They give higher priority to fairness and honesty than to culpability and thereby attempt to arrive at a definitive — but not necessarily complete — picture of the past. “Truth commissions are meant to provide a national narrative of a conflict, but they can be debated, discussed, challenged and contested,” says Elizabeth Goodfriend, a program associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice in Liberia. “There's no one truth.”

When the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1995 to examine abuses by the former apartheid governments, it acknowledged four versions of the truth: the forensic truth of numbers and facts; the narrative truth of personal experience; the social truth of publicizing thousands of personal stories and the restorative truth of acknowledging a dark history before moving forward. [Footnote 18]

Those truths can compete in any public process, and the South African commissioners didn't say which truth should trump others. [Footnote 19] But even when there is no outright conflict among them, each version has its limits, and one version can sometimes require another in order to uncover the complete scope of what happened.

“Interviewing 8,000 people doesn't tell you how many victims there were over a 25-year period; it just tells you the stories of those particular individuals,” says David Cohen, director of the War Crimes Studies Center at the University of California-Berkeley. Whether a truth commission gets an accurate picture of the past, he says, “depends on which truth you're looking for.”

Truth commissions also risk recording untruths, especially if they encourage witnesses to come forward by offering them an incentive that looks a lot like immunity. South Africa offered outright amnesty if individuals confessed fully and truthfully. In Liberia, the truth commission promised it wouldn't recommend prosecution for anyone who offered a full confession and genuine regret for crimes committed during the 14-year civil war.

Such an incentive, critics say, may be a temptation to lie. “If you tie up admissions of guilt and expressions of repentance with provisions of amnesty, you of course have a recipe for pretending,” says Thomas Brudholm, a Danish scholar of transitional justice and co-editor of the book Religious Responses to Mass Atrocities.

Whatever version of the truth emerges, it may be just a start. “It's better to understand any of these transitional devices as contributing to a multigenerational struggle over truth, rather than any one of them producing a definitive truth,” says Harvard's Minow.

The messy debates over recent Balkan history suggest a truth commission can be a healthy start to that process. Although an international tribunal in The Hague is prosecuting Balkan war criminals, the region has never had a truth commission. Every generation of schoolchildren learns a different version of history, depending on their ethnicity. "There should be a recorded history," said a Bosnian civil society leader, when asked if a truth and reconciliation commission could establish a historical record of what happened. "It is not good that different people are hearing different histories. It is bad for future generations." [Footnote 20]

Criminal justice, meanwhile, is limited. It requires hard, physical evidence and a perpetrator who is present in the courtroom. "There were thousands upon thousands of incidents the prosecutor would never get to," says Goldstone, the tribunal's former chief prosecutor. Were there a truth commission, "the prospects for permanent peace would be a lot better."

Whether a truth commission can get an accurate record of the past, or even the best record, may soon become a secondary argument. A growing movement seeks to establish the “right to truth” as a universal human right that — like other rights — governments must protect and fulfill.

"The state has an obligation to explore the truth to the best of its abilities and to disclose it publicly," Juan Méndez, an Argentinean who was the first United Nations special advisor on the prevention of genocide, has argued. "Whether we call it a right or not, the obligation of the state very honestly to explore every detail of human rights abuses is now so well established that almost nobody denies it anymore." [Footnote 21]

[17] Hayner, op. cit., p. 222.
[18] Don Foster, “Evaluating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa,” Social Justice Research, vol. 19, no. 4, December 2006, p. 533.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Kristen Cibelli and Tamy Guberek, “Justice Unknown, Justice Unsatisfied? Bosnian NGOs Speak about the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,” Education and Public Inquiry and International Citizenship Program, Tufts University, undated, p. 20.
[21] “Human Rights and the Future: Advancing Human Rights in a Dangerous World,” Remarks at the American Bar Association's annual meeting, Sept. 17, 2008. For background, see Alan Greenblatt, “Rewriting History,” CQ Global Researcher, December 2009.

For more information see the CQ Global Researcher report on "Truth Commissions" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Global Researcher PDF.