Some thoughts on the idea of a truth commission

Even a cursory glance across the history of the twentieth century will reveal plentiful transitional periods precipitated by regime change. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the nationalist Serbian rule under Milosovic and, of course, the fall of German National Socialism: all of these represent regime changes that seem to demand an answer from the newly emerging democratic nation state to the question: should we forget or remember?

Transitional periods face many systematic challenges, but perhaps the most essential question is whether a nation can really face the present reality and future possibilities without confronting the past, however painful that process may be? On the other hand, what are the benefits of turning over the past? Or, more importantly, who are we trying to benefit?

The sense of delivering justice to those who were victimised is what constitutes the justification for bodies like a truth commission. The form that justice takes, however, is likely to far from conventional. In the cases of war crimes, genocides, mass rape and so on, criminal justice is deemed to be inappropriate or insufficient. Such is the gravity of the crime, that the parameters of justification must be enlarged from our everyday criminal proceedings, to capture additional senses: the political, compensatory, restorative, and transformative.

The entity of the truth commission itself has a specific set up. First, it is focused on the past. Second, instead of documenting individual cases, it aims to document the greatest number of human rights violations possible. Third, it is an extraordinary body, existing for a limited period of time and with the expectation that the final report submitted constitutes the closing of that particular body. Finally, it would appear to have a certain amount of authority, nonetheless this is granted by the political body that establishes it.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that there is no guarantee that facing up to the past ensures future stability in the emerging democracy. On the other hand, there is a stronger sense that best way a nation has a shot at moving forward is by creating a whole new moral foundation for the community. Regimes pervert a sense of right and wrong by appealing to their own ethical framework. Thus, it isn’t as simple, post regime change, as replacing the governing elites and instituting a new political framework, since the ethics of the nation – people’s hearts and minds – have become distorted. Hence the requirement for a new moral foundation.

It is not the role of the truth commission to come up with a new set of moral standards, by measuring what has passed before against a vision of the newly democratic nation in question. Rather, the commission facilitates a population’s ability to reflect, introspect, and ultimately come to terms with history rather than burying it deep down. In effect, the truth commission enables a mastering of history. Establishing the truths about a state’s past wrongs can help lay the foundations for the new order, but it is not up to the commission to say what that new order is.

Might a truth commission be bound to deliver an ‘official’ truth? How do we know for sure that it won’t be influenced by strategic interventions on the part of the new political order? In a sense, we can’t say with certainty that this won’t happen. Aside from the threat of strategic intervention, these are are real people and as such bring a set of real lived experiences to the table. It wouldn’t be possible to segregate those experiences, to look at the facts of the matter, because the process and the end result would be meaningless to practice. No, better to accept the limitations that bound the commission and the people who make it up, than to seek a purely objective insight into historical matters.

In sum, the objective of a truth commission is not to produce a new set of moral standards, but, in calling attention to the conditions in which violence etc can arise, to try to make sure  that such events can’t happen again.

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