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Truth Commissions Are Political Too

17 Mar 2022
By Dr Carla Winston
Mary Burton, one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, District Six, Cape Town, South Africa in 2014. Source: Portland Seminary, Flickr,

Truth Commissions have been celebrated as tools for remedying injustice. But behind the scenes, almost every detail has been determined by a rigorous political process, often hindering their true potential.

Truth Commissions (TCs), sometimes called Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs), have become a standard practice for addressing — or appearing to address — legacies of conflict, oppression, or other human rights violations across the world. They have been used in democracies, autocracies, post-conflict states, and transitioning states since 1974 with varying degrees of “success.” However, although most politicians might publicly agree that “the truth” is good, that is where the agreement ends. Whose truth, how much truth, and what we do with that truth are all highly political topics and the subjects of serious negotiation during peace processes and other transitional projects.

It should come as no surprise, given the state of information, misinformation, and disinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines, that how we understand “the truth” is intensely political. Truth-discovery efforts are routinely subject to political management — or interference, depending on who is doing it and who is critiquing it — and even once a commitment to “the truth” is made, much remains to be debated about the scope of that truth and the process of finding it.

This is especially true regarding the role of truth in peace processes and in post-conflict stabilisation and political reform efforts. TCs are often the subject of intense negotiation between conflicting parties, as they have the potential to affect individuals, governments, and societies in profound ways. However, not everyone at the negotiating table may actually want a TC to reach that potential — some of those supposed effects are not beneficial for everyone. The existence, outcome, and effects of truth commissions are largely a result of their design, and therefore their design is as political as anything else in a potential peace agreement.

Disagreements over TCs come in several varieties. The first is whether to have one at all. Mandating a TC as part of a larger agreement, as was the case with South Africa’s transitional constitution in 1993 or Canada’s Residential Schools Settlement in 2006, puts pressure on the new government to live up to its promises rather than merely trusting that government’s good intentions. It also means that certain particularly important design elements can be included in that agreement, further narrowing the scope for one-sided or self-serving modifications to a commission’s mandate, which could skew its results or dampen its effects. This undoubtedly takes more negotiating time and can be highly contentious in terms of those design elements. On the other hand, omitting a TC from a peace process or deferring the decision often makes it unlikely that there will be one at all.

The second set of disagreements concerns the temporal, personal, and activity mandate — how long of a time period will be covered, what kinds of activities will be investigated, and who will lead the enquiry. Early truth commissions looked only at enforced disappearances, but current best practice suggests mandate should be as broad as is practically possible. But what is “practical” matters, especially in terms of time periods — go too far back and there is so much evidence that addressing everything becomes a nearly impossible task.

Narrower mandates also carry political risk. For example, in cases where there has already been a regime change, it is not unusual for the new ruling party to try to exclude any human rights violations committed by its own forces, instead focusing on delegitimising the old regime. While this may accomplish that goal, it can also omit particular crimes or victims from the process and may leave people with a lingering suspicion about the record of the new government. If there is no transition, the government may keep the mandate narrow — focusing on a single event, for example —  in order to avoid scrutiny over larger, systemic issues.

In the case of peace talks or power-sharing agreements, investigations become all-or-nothing — either both sides are included, or there is no commission at all. There may be some argument over whether to include paramilitary or irregular forces on the government side, but generally parties see unfairness in one-sided investigations if they must continue to work together in the future.

The third set of issues is related to transparency — who will provide evidence, whether or not that evidence will be given publicly, and whether testimony or even the final report will be publicly available. While it is standard practice for victims or others affected by violence to give testimony, whether political elites do so can be highly contentious, especially if those elites are planning to remain in politics after the peace agreement. Members and former members of government can be seen as combative and unrepentant when questioned over their previous decision making, and commissions may need special powers to get them to testify at all. If the testimony is televised or the report is made widely publicly available, political reputations can be permanently tarnished even without criminal trials or removal from public office. On the other hand, if reports are kept hidden, perpetrators can avoid such clear evidence of their abuses becoming public.

Lastly, and perhaps most easily overlooked in the creation of a truth commission, is what happens next. Truth commissions are a specific tool in a much larger and longer process of emerging from and dealing with the impact of periods of conflict, violence, oppression, and so forth. Simply knowing the truth is not enough. We must act on it. Commissions are usually mandated to give a range of recommendations — from referrals for criminal trials to policy and institutional reform, to education, memorialisation, and reparation. The government’s response to those recommendations is what allows the truth to serve peace — or to leave the public’s legacy of violence and overall discontent to fester, damaging political, social, and economic progress in the post-transitional period.

Disagreements over truth commissions, in terms of their existence, mandate, transparency, and required next steps, can stall or even derail peace negotiations.  As in other areas of life, “the truth,” and what it means is intensely political.

Dr Carla Winston is Lecturer in International Relations at The University of Melbourne. She is interested in International Relations theory, complex systems, norms and norm diffusion, human rights and transitional justice, peace and conflict, and the uses of popular culture in politics and international affairs. Recent publications have appeared in The European Journal of International Relations, Interest Groups & Advocacy, and The Journal of Human Rights.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.