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Debate: Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

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Were these commissions successful in South Africa? Are they a model for redressing violence?

Background and context

Truth and reconciliation commissions are one way for a country recovering from a tragic past (e.g. post civil war, or following the transition from a dictatorship to democracy) to address politically-motivated crimes and human rights abuses. South Africa is the most famous example of such a country, and its Truth and reconciliation worked from 1995-1998 under the Chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Individuals involved in past violence were invited to confess what they had done, while surviving victims and the relatives of dead victims also had an opportunity to tell their story. Those who told what they did under apartheid were granted freedom from prosecution for their crimes (providing the Commission agreed that they were politically motivated); those who refused to testify remain liable to criminal prosecution. Although South Africa is the best known example of such a Commission, others preceded it, particularly in post-dictatorship situations in Latin America (e.g. Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, El Salavador) and Africa (e.g. Nigeria, Ghana). In many of these cases the commission's main task was truth-finding but national reconciliation was usually at least part of the motivation behind setting them up. More recently commissions with an explicit brief to pursue both truth and reconciliation have begun work in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Peru and Serbia and Montenegro.

See Wikipedia's article for and Reconciliation Commissions

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Argument #1

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Yes

Countries emerging from violent pasts, involving repression, civil war and political violence face three options. Firstly, they can attempt to ignore the past, allowing those guilty of atrocities to go unpunished and perhaps even prosper under the new system. This approach leaves victims' families bitter and communities divided, making renewed violence all the more likely. Secondly, they can set up war crimes courts (as in the Balkans, Rwanda and Sierra Leone), but these may be seen as victor's justice, or as imposed from outside by the international community. Those threatened by such courts may refuse to lay down their arms, jeopardising any chance of a lasting peace settlement. Finally and often best, they can set up a form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This requires the whole country to face up to its past, to acknowledge that violence was done by all parties and that the victims were many, and to seek reconciliation through forgiveness at both personal and national levels.

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No

Terrible crimes deserve appropriate punishments. Ignoring the past may not be a good idea, but war criminals (especially the leaders of violent groups) should be brought to justice in public trials. This is the only way to ensure that dangerous men are not allowed to continue in society, where they may threaten and terrorise others when the opportunity presents itself again. It also allows punishment to be proportionate, distinguishing between those who planned violence and repression, and those who followed them, rather than granting all the same amnesty. Most importantly, it sends a message to other would-be warlords and dictators at home and abroad that justice will not be denied; the easy assumption of amnesties will only encourage future violence.

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Argument #2

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Yes

It is important to uncover the real truth of what happened during the terrible years of violence and/or repression. This can only ever be achieved with the cooperation of those responsible; they literally know where the bodies of the disappeared are buried. Without this collective revelation of grief and guilt, the families of the victims will never know the truth about their suffering, and so will not be able to mourn them with dignity. The nation must also confront its past so that those who did not commit violence themselves, but who supported violent groups or repressive regimes, even if only passively, can no longer claim, "I did not know" but must acknowledge their part too and commit themselves to building a better society.

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No

Even the best Truth and Reconciliation process can only arrive at a partial version of the truth. This may take so many years that political development is halted while society relives the trauma through commission proceedings. Such commissions also impose a particular form of morality upon everyone, drawing upon specifically Christian traditions of confession, absolution and forgiveness that may be alien both to many victims and to the wider society. Even in an almost completely Christian South Africa many victims' families rejected the process for this reason; it is even less well suited to other societies and cultures.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Compromise is essential to achieving peace and stability after years of conflict. This often has to be negotiated, as in South Africa, and has to survive for long enough for trust to grow. A Truth and Reconciliation process allows for such compromises to be made, favouring no side over another and helping a move to peaceful democratic politics. It does not seek retributive justice but restorative justice, which gives value to the victims of conflict and requires their oppressors to address their sufferings. An amnesty is not easily given but has to be applied for individually, through a complete and truthful disclosure of past crimes. If information is withheld, or the crimes are found not to be politically motivated, then prosecution and punishment are still possible.

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No

Truth and Reconciliation commissions are a mask, behind which political bargains can be made that allow the guilty to go free. Power is traded in return for amnesty. People may be required to confess to their crimes (although in South Africa middle-ranking bureaucrats were the main scapegoats while their political masters mostly escaped close scrutiny), but they will not be punished for them. South Africa is a unique example where violence was often committed by agents of the state for purely political reasons, and where the end of repression was negotiated rather than brought about through victory for one side. Elsewhere political and criminal or economic violence are hard to separate (e.g. Sierra Leone, Cambodia), and violence was ended by victory for one party, often with external help (e.g. Sierra Leone, Cambodia, again, but also Rwanda).

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Argument #4

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Yes

A Truth and Reconciliation process provides a national forum for facing up to the past, rather than one set up from outside by the international community. War crimes tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda have taken years to achieve a very small number of convictions. They can often appear to be hijacked by international bodies such as NATO or the UN, attempting to impose a solution from outside (to salve consciences in the west) without real understanding of the particular circumstances of the individual nation.

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No

The United Nations and other international bodies have great experience and expertise in dealing with post-conflict situations, including running war crimes trials. They can draw upon the lessons to be learnt from other countries and apply them in partnership with local politicians and lawyers. Their involvement is important because conflicts are rarely entirely domestic, but often spill over into neighbouring states, as in the Balkans, South-East Asia and West Africa. International courts can also avoid the suspicion of bias and corruption which an entirely national process can suffer.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Financial compensation was only part of the South African Commission's work. Although it has been slow to arrive it is continuing to be distributed. More will be done over time, and the impact of reconciliation on polls is also a long-term process. Countries recovering from conflicts and repression typically have wrecked economies, so it is unreasonable to expect immediate results in this area. Lengthy war crimes trials deal with only a fraction of the abuses committed, and typically cost tens of millions of dollars (mostly in legal costs) more than a Truth and Reconciliation process, so they are even harder to justify.

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No

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process has failed in a number of ways. Polls show that different races are more polarised after its work, rather than less, so reconciliation seems to be failing. It also promised financial redress for victims and their families, but this has largely failed to appear.

External links and resources

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