Tag: truth commission

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Don’t Achieve Truth or Reconciliation: Discuss

In a recent article by Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch, Mohamed Sesay and myself, we explore broad-based claimed that transitional justice mechanisms are a necessary ingredient in successful peace processes. More specifically, we question the increasingly universal and rarely challenged assumption that truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) establish the truth and reconciliation necessary for lasting peace (the TRCs= truth and reconciliation formula).

The truth is that we know very little about what truth and reconciliation commissions actually accomplish. What we do know is that they are the poster-child/perfect case of international norm diffusion. In the span of a few decades TRCs have gone from sporadic events used in random cases of civil war or human rights abuse to a consistent, 100% approved international norm. Most research establishes the prominence of the South African TRC (despite mixed reviews on its success) as a turning point from which TRC became the gold standard in peace agreements- particularly in the global south.

Evidence of the TRC norm abound: First, they are endorsed by most major international organizations working in the area of peace and conflict resolution, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The UN is such a big fan that it established its own ‘took kit’ for establishing TRCs. Second, transitional justice itself has become profesionalized and institutionalized, particularly through the establishment of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). In a Foreign Affairs article Jonathan Tepperman summarized the phenomena, stating that ‘the truth business, in short, is booming’ and ‘a new academic discipline has spring up to study the commissions’ pointing to the exponential growth in attention to transitional justice.

Despite all the evidence that TRCs are ‘here to stay’, we still know little about what they do, and if they achieve their lofty objectives. One of the greatest challenges is that the few existing evaluations of TRCs tend to have two major problems:

  1. Professional bias: evaluations of TRCs often have major conflicts of interest in that it is often advocates or even those implementing TRCs that do the evaluating. Two of the leading and most prolific organizations that study TRCs ar ethe ICTJ and the Role of Law Program at the Untied States Institute for Peace- both major advocates of the processes. Imagine you get to evaluate your own tenure file…you get the point.  
  2. Epistemological and methodological bias: most mechanisms used to assess TRCs, including surveys, focus groups, and quantitative analysis are obstacles to really understanding the local impacts of TRC processes. These methods assume that respondents share a common understanding of major concepts such as ‘peace,’ ‘reconciliation,’ and ‘security.’ This is a major leap of faith considering the disparate locations and contexts TRCs operate in. Generalized surveys leave little space for local respondents to define, explain, or question these key concepts and they do not engage respondents in a manner that solicits local meanings and understandings of the processes of reconciliation, raising questions about how to interpret the results of such studies. 

The practical results of such problems mean that claims of TRC “successes” may be based on biased or limited data. Respondents have been found to complete multiple-choice questionnaires in order to satisfy researchers or to avoid being embarrassed (who wants to fill out the ‘no idea’ column? AND if you know the person giving the evaluation also was part of the implementation process, don’t you think it may skew how you respond?). It is not uncommon to have a majority of respondents admitting that they have little or no knowledge about them but that they also endorse them. In a 2003 poll on the attitude of Sierra Leoneans toward the TRC and the Special Court, conducted by the Campaign for Good Governance, it was found that only 17% of respondents understood the purpose of the TRC yet in the same poll it was affirmed that 60% of respondents declared the Commission as beneficial to Sierra Leoneans.

So why all the claims of TRC success and is it possible to better understand the impacts of TRCs?

Unless the biases in existing research methods are addressed and attention is drawn to the self-fulfilling prophecies of the transitional justice industry millions of dollars will continue to be thrown at these processes at the end of civil wars- a time when neither money nor human capital is in vast supply. There is a need for space in the tightly knit transitional justice landscape for critique and external evaluation- and acknowledgement that such activities will enhance, not detract from the objectives of truth and reconciliation.


The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission: an outlier in the international transitional justice industry

Did you know Canada has a truth and reconciliation commission operating right now? It seems neither do most Canadians. The Canadian TRC was initiated to address the history and legacies of the former residential school system for Canada’s indigenous population, or First Nations. First Nations children were taken from their homes- siblings often separated- and placed into residential schools, which operated from 1870 until 1993. These children were forbidden from, and punished for, using their native languages or practicing customs or religious ceremonies. Within many of the schools children were sexually, verbally, and physically abused. Shame, silence, cultural degradation, separated families, and inter-student and intergenerational abuse include some of the many detrimental legacies of the residential schools.

The Canadian case, and its position as an outlier provokes provocative questions about so called international transitional justice mechanisms, tensions between local and international justice norms, and accountability for the legacies of colonization.

Determinants of Outlier Status
No “Complimentarity”
with other international justice mechanisms: After the South African TRC, most truth commissions were established to compliment punitive judicial institutions. Unlike other recent commissions such as the ones in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, in which the TRC operated alongside an international court, the Canadian TRC was the result of a court order and “The purpose of the commission is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to create a historical account of the residential schools, help people to heal, and encourage reconciliation between aboriginals and non-aboriginal Canadians.”

Timing and Funding: The Canadian TRC has an initial operating budget of $60 million and a mandate to operate over the course of 5 years. In addition, the Canadians set aside almost 2 billion dollars for Common Experience Payments- restitution payments for survivors of residential schools. In contrast the Liberian TRC had a meager budget of only a couple of million dollars. After only 3 years of operation (from 2006-2009) the TRC in Liberia had its funding slashed, leaving thousands of testimonies were out of the archive and pages of the report unedited. Sierra Leone’s TRC only operated for two years from 2002-2004. Initially it had a paltry budget of $1 million but the final costs of the commission were closer to $9 million.

Local versus international: The truth is that most ‘international’ TRCs- including those in the former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Uganda- are largely initiated and directed by western institutions. In particular, the United Nations and the International Center for Transitional Justice has been the driving force behind global TRCs. With funding coming from external donors (George Soros was a major funder of the Liberian TRC, for example) and international experts steering the process, questions remain as to the local relevance of truth commissions. In initial research done by myself and my co-authors- Mohamed Sesay and Michal Ben Joseph-Hirsh- we found that the majority of Sierra Leoneans did not understand the mandate of the TRC in their country. The majority never had access to the final report and few link the TRC to lasting peace in their country. Conversely, the Canadian TRC has been funded and guided by Canadians. National events, including an upcoming event in Northern Canada are being held across the country to allow different populations to participate and the commission mandate includes the establishment of healing practices relevant to Canadian First Nations populations, including healing circles.

While most Canadians would be hard pressed to tell you anything about the commission, the motivation behind the commission and the way in which its mandate is being implemented has important implications for those interested in international truth commissions and transitional justice. The Canadian TRC is one of dozens of truth commissions operating internationally today. After the South African TRC, truth commissions became normalized as a necessary element of recovery after atrocities or conflict. By 2006 over 40 truth commissions were operating globally, vigorously supported by both the United Nations and the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Certainly the Canadian TRC is not perfect and without its challenges- several of the commissioners resigned in the early stages and national events had to be delayed. However, the commitment and locally relevant approach to the commission should inspire the international transitional justice industry to rethink their own mandates. Perhaps more importantly, the commission will shed some light on race relations more broadly, the potential for colonizing governments and formerly colonized peoples to learn from their shared history, and the significance of colonizer governments acknowledging their role in past atrocities as well as the legacies of those actions. Canadians and the rest of the world should also be watching to see how former colonizing forces are able to acknowledge past atrocities and possibly repair a historically antagonistic relationship.


A Truth Commission for Iraq

Back in 2003, the name Ricardo Sanchez appeared in several posts on my personal blog. At the time, the now-retired General was “the top U.S. military official in Iraq.”

Over the years, Sanchez provided honest and forthright assessments of the Iraq war. Even though I didn’t always agree with his analysis of what should be done, I respected his contributions to the political debate. Lately, he’s been pushing a “truth commission” for Iraq and I think that the U.S. should pursue something like that to document the course of the Iraq war.

Sanchez’s evolving views of the Iraq war are worth outlining.

In October 2003, Sanchez pointed out that violence in Iraq was increasing, despite political figures at home bragging about improved life without Saddam Hussein. In November of that year, Sanchez used the word “war” to describe the post-“mission accomplished” environment in Iraq.

In October 2007, Sanchez gave a fairly prominent speech that was very critical of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq war.

From a catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan to the Administration’s latest surge strategy, this Administration has failed to employ and — and synchronize its political, economic, and military power. The latest revised strategy is a desperate attempt by the Administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war and they have definitely not been able to communicate effectively that reality to the American people.

He continued by adding, “There has been a glaring, unfortunate, display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders.” In his view, too many decisions about the war reflected partisanship rather than the needed cooperation and bipartisanship needed to achieve success.

He criticized, for instance, “inept coalition management” and all-around “failure” by the National Security Council. The speech was a little short on detail, but Sanchez clearly thought that there was plenty of blame to go around. The “greatest failures in this war can be linked to America’s lack of commitment, priority, and moral courage in this war effort.” Specifically, “America must hold all national agencies accountable for developing and executing the political and economic initiatives that will bring about stability, security, political, and economic hope for all Iraqis.”

In his memoir, published a few years ago, Sanchez said that the Bush administration “led America into a strategic blunder of historic proportions.”

Most recently, Sanchez has been calling for a “truth commission” to investigate the torture and other abuses that occurred in Iraq. “If we do not find out what happened,” he says “then we are doomed to repeat it.”

I’ve been thinking about Sanchez’s “truth commission” a great deal lately because of the fact that the Obama administration, pro-war Republicans (not the Ron Paul wing, small as it is) and the Army have together embraced a narrative crediting “the surge” with making Iraq a success story after all. Obama’s own “surge” in Afghanistan commits his administration to the Iraq example. Republicans get to pretend that the Iraq war wasn’t a horrible mistake from the planning stages and the Army saves face and avoids a Vietnam-like diminution of its relevance and credibility.

I’ve blogged about the flaws in this logic previously. Additionally, Andrew Bacevich’s latest book deftly explains why this narrative is inaccurate — though he acknowledges its prominence.

What could correct the narrative? Maybe only Sanchez’s imagined truth commission. Unfortunately, while the UK conducted a war inquiry, I do not expect to see anything like it in the USA.


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