Panaceas after pandemonium? Truth commissions in the wake of protracted conflicts.

Author:Heine, Jorge
Position:THE GLOBAL FORUM - Report

The third wave of democratization has meant the end of autocratic rule and oppressive state-sponsored practices in many countries around the world. Yet the transition from authoritarianism and state-sponsored terror to more open and participatory societies has its own imperatives. After autocratic rule and protracted conflicts, it is necessary to heal the wounds caused by years, sometimes decades, of mistrust, fear, and violence. Systematic violations of human rights, in the form of oppression, physical and psychological violence, and death, leave lasting individual and collective wounds. Transitional (or restorative) justice is designed to address and (hopefully) mitigate such legacies left by the previous regime. In doing so, it draws on a variety of instruments: criminal prosecutions, special tribunals, amnesties, apologies, memorials, lustrations, and truth commissions (TCs), among others. The end of the Cold War also gave a new impetus to international criminal justice. Special tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, for Rwanda, and for Sierra Leone were established, as was, most prominently, the International Criminal Court, originated in the 1999 Rome Treaty and based in The Hague. For many, this portends a major shift in international relations, one in which the traditional, Westphalian, and sovereignty-centered international system gives way to another, based on more porous units, in which individual and human rights have more sway and human rights abuses trigger a more proactive international reaction.

In turn, these developments have given rise to a whole new field of study: transitional justice. This is an interdisciplinary field in which political science, law, sociology, history, anthropology, psychology, theology, and other disciplines converge. Not surprisingly, since transitional justice emerges as a result of the developments described above, it is, much like democratization and political transitions, also marked by contingency and paradox. Transitions are fluid and political action and the uses of the law find themselves under a different set of rules than under ordinary circumstances. Grasping the transformative opportunities presented by the conjuncture becomes a key test of political leadership. (1)

Truth commissions have emerged as a popular tool of transitional justice, especially in cases where a delicate balance between the extant remnants of the previous regime coexist with the new dispensation. (2) TCs have come to the fore because of their flexibility, their open-endedness, and their ability to act as a bridge of sorts between an evil past and a democratic present, thus laying the foundations for a future society at peace with itself. At first, transitional justice was mainly concerned with transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule. However, after the large number of internal conflicts that arose in the post-Cold War era, it has also been applied within the wider panoply of nation- and peacebuilding instruments following the end of a war or conflict. This has been especially true for Africa. Some transitional justice tools, like TCs, have shown to be so prevalent and useful for a variety of reasons that they are now deployed in advanced Western democracies, like Canada, to investigate historical human rights abuses as well as to investigate the conditions that led to the breakdown of democracy, as happened with the TC set up in Honduras after the June 2009-January 2010 crisis.

Especially in Latin America and Africa, TCs as well as truth and reconciliation commissions have been deployed to come to terms with past injustices while rebuilding trust in government and among social groups, although they have also been deployed in Asia, Europe, and North America. (3) While they share a number of common features, TCs must reflect local specificities to address the crimes of the past amidst the fluid, uncertain, and challenging conditions that are the hallmark of democratic transitions.

The Truth Commission Process

The lure of TCs derives from their presumed ability to allow transitional societies to come to terms with the crimes of the past without "upsetting the applecart," that is, without derailing the whole process and putting the country back in the situation ex ante. TCs do this by means of a carefully calibrated balancing act: one to be struck between the remnants of the former regime and the interests and priorities of the current one; between the interests of the individual and those of the public; and between a due process that is fair to all parties involved and not hamstringing that process with too many...

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