Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 189-196
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The Justice of Truth and Reconciliation
Within a year after the first free elections in South Africa in 1994, legislation was drafted to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). From 1996 and over the following two years, South Africa initiated an extraordinary process through which hearings on the crimes and suffering of the traumatic past became part of the daily news. Compared to earlier truth commissions such as those in South America, the South African TRC was vested with innovative, quasi-judicial powers to grant amnesty and with an exceptionally clear focus on reconciliation. Furthermore, it was established and carried through with an unusual degree of public debate. It combined an investigation into what had happened, a forum for victim testimony, a committee on reparations and rehabilitation, and a process of amnesty. This procedure was uniquely constructed to increase knowledge about the past as well as to ensure some measure of individual accountability. Even though more than twenty truth commissions have been established since the 1980s, it is the South African TRC that has provided the model when initiatives for new commissions have been proposed in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda.
At the same time, it is also broadly recognized that the South African Commission does not yield a flawless model simply to be implemented in any given context. It is difficult to judge the success of the TRC in relation to the promotion of truth, justice, and reconciliation. If the government does not follow up on the Commission's recommendation to introduce a policy of reparations toward the victims, and if in the end political criminals, whether they were refused amnesty or did not even apply for it, will benefit from a general amnesty, then the whole TRC process looks bleak from the victims' perspective. This and a host of other questions about the successes and shortcomings of the Commission's mandate, about the way in which it handled the mandate and the complex set of procedures and decisions adopted by the TRC constitutes only one level of the debates that have surrounded the institution from before its inception. [End Page 189]
Another set of debates has been concerned with attempts to provide a moral justification of the TRC's guiding principles and procedures. These debates focus on such matters as the ethics of reconciliation (that is, the appreciation of repentance and forgiveness as morally worthy substitutes for prosecution and punishment) and the attempts to provide a moral justification of the Commission's amnesty procedure. This issue is rightly said to be the moral and legal Achilles' heel of the TRC. To grant amnesty to perpetrators of international crimes is highly contentious and at odds with ongoing international attempts to fight legal impunity. However, the complex debates about such moral issues have enriched the vocabulary and the horizons of contemporary ethics and philosophy of law and have challenged our notions of what it may mean to hold perpetrators accountable for their wrongs. While there can be little doubt that the South African TRC gave rise to at least as much criticism as praise, the problems don't add up to a reason to discard the very idea of future truth commissions. Instead, they strongly suggest that those who propose new commissions should study carefully the debates and lessons that emerged from experiences with the South African TRC.
The two anthologies for review here, Looking Back Reaching Forward (2000) and Truth v. Justice (2000), are formidable resources in this regard. They both offer a variety of interesting reflections on the wide span of moral, psychological, legal, and political issues that have arisen in relation to the truth commission process in South Africa.
Looking Back Reaching Forward is edited by Charles Villa-Vicencio and Wilhelm Verwoerd with the intent to promote open and critical debate on the work of the TRC and its contribution to transitional politics in South Africa. In order to fulfill this purpose, the editors have compiled twenty-eight relatively brief reflections on the work done by the TRC, as...