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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 1-43

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

Audrey R. Chapman & Patrick Ball

I. Introduction

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 [End Page 1] 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 disappearances and torture inflicted by military-dominated dictatorships on their own populations.

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 Africa's 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 [End Page 2] 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 Africa's 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...


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