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Truth, Reconciliation and "Success" in the International Context

by Dr. Rosemary Nagy on 2013-04-09


A brief overview of truth commissions

There have been over 40 truth commissions across the world, starting with the first truth commission that was established in Uganda in 1974 in response to “disappearances” [1] conducted by armed forces under the presidency of Idi Amin (Hayner 2011).   Perhaps the best-known truth commission is the 1996-2003 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which investigated torture, killings and disappearances committed in the struggle for and against apartheid.  The South African TRC, in turn, drew inspiration from Chile’s 1990-1991 National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, which documented human rights abuses resulting in death or disappearance during the years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet.


The idea behind truth commissions is that speaking and documenting the truth serves to challenge silence, denial and impunity.  It has often been the case that countries established a truth commission as a “second-best” option because criminal trials were impossible due to political circumstances.  A truth commission could at least “name names” and thereby provide a measure of accountability, albeit not punishment. 


However, proponents of restorative justice argue that truth commissions go a step better than criminal trials, which tend to narrow on individual perpetrators and to traumatize and humiliate victims in an adversarial process.  A truth commission, in contrast, aims to be victim-centered, providing a safe space for victims to speak their truth as part of a cathartic and healing process.  Truth commissions are also able to document larger patterns of violence by identifying those responsible at the top and by investigating root causes and societal complicity.  Through this process, the justice that emerges is supposed to be one that restores relationships, not only between individual perpetrators and victims, but also between conflicting societal groups or communities.


Canada’s TRC: A unique endeavour

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is quite unique for several reasons.  First, almost all truth commissions are located in the global South, usually in developing countries that are in transition to democracy from authoritarian rule or civil war.  Canada is one of the first long-standing democracies in the global North to use a truth commission. (In 2005, citizens in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina organized the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the 1979 deaths of five anti-KKK demonstrators; however, this was not a national truth commission).


Second, while many truth commissions emerge out of political negotiations between parties to a war or between outgoing and incoming regimes, the Canadian TRC is the only one in the world to be negotiated as part of an out-of-court settlement.  This means the Canadian TRC can hold the Parties to the Settlement Agreement directly accountable to the Agreement, as the TRC did when it successfully took the government to court over the withholding of archival documents.  It also means that the TRC, although it has ended up being run as a federal department for administrative purposes, is supposed to be completely independent from the state.


Third, the Canadian TRC has a rather different set of tasks and capabilities than is typical.  The mandate of the Canadian TRC covers a much longer time period than most truth commissions.  Examining historic injustice over seven generations is not quite the same as investigating specific violations over a finite period of a specific war or regime.  While many truth commissions are granted judicial powers to subpoena witnesses and the ability to “name names” of perpetrators, the Canadian TRC has neither of these powers.  This has led some academics to observe that the Canadian TRC may be among the “less robust” of truth commissions worldwide (James 2010).  Because there has been no significant disruption in Indigenous-settler relations of power (for example, the Indian Act is still in place), the TRC operates in a climate that is not particularly conducive to social accountability and change (James 2010, 29).  At the same time, however, unlike in many post-conflict situations, the very existence of Canada’s truth commission is not threatened by renewed violence or physical intimidation.  Finally, the Canadian TRC has a comparatively high budget of $60 million (CAD), and the provision of compensation and commemoration are already in place (In many contexts, compensation is never or barely provided, and victims subsequently feel that truth commission “talk is cheap.”)


How “successful” are truth commissions?

That is the million-dollar question, and one for which there are no definitive answers.   Part of the challenge in measuring “success” is being able to define what a specific truth commission was supposed to achieve.  We might say a truth commission is successful if it fulfills its mandate. But what if the mandate were so narrow or so broad that the truth commission was always limited in what it might accomplish?  Or, if a truth commission is tasked with “reconciliation” (not all truth commissions are asked to do this), what, then, do we mean by reconciliation? No more outward displays of violence?  Deep changes in social values and attitudes?  Displays of remorse and forgiveness within communities or by high profile leaders?  As we can see with these few examples, defining and measuring success can be very difficult.


Recently, researchers have turned to these difficult questions and come up with some surprising findings.   For example, political scientists Tricia Olsen, Leigh Payne and Andrew Reiter write, “Truth commissions by themselves provide neither accountability nor stability, undermining human rights” in the context of fragile democracies.  Using statistical analysis from a dataset covering multiple transitional democracies, they found that only when truth commissions were paired with trials did human rights violations decrease in number and indicators of democracy increase.  While they conclude that “dealing with the past is better for political outcomes than ignoring it,” their findings make clear that positive impacts are based on accountability through prosecution, or, at the very least, through “naming names” in a truth commission (Olsen, Payne, and Reiter 2010). 


In another statistical study using a cross-national dataset, Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm (2010) also found that truth commissions had negative consequences for the protection of physical integrity human rights and no significant relationship to the development of democracy.  Yet, Wiebelhaus-Brahm’s overarching findings sharply contrast with his qualitative case studies of South Africa, Chile and El Salvador.  Truth commissions in these three countries, he was able to show through detailed discussion, were able to advance symbolic and material reparation to victims, human rights education and ratification of international human rights treaties, and institutional reform in the military and judiciary, amongst other things.


While the cross-national statistical findings above have legitimately generated a lot of reflection about the role of truth commissions, they are based on an approach that defines “success” in terms of advancing democracy, protecting physical integrity rights and holding individual perpetrators accountable.  These are important but limited goals.  They may seem rather inapt in the Canadian context of stable democracy.  Moreover, with Indian Residential Schools, genocidal assimilation, cultural loss, intergenerational trauma and systemic racism seem to have taken center stage over “naming” individual abusers and pedophiles, many of whom are now dead.  However, as I have argued elsewhere with respect to typical truth commissions, focusing on gross violations of human rights (torture, killing, sexual abuse) distracts from the sorts of structural violence (poverty, social exclusion, colonization, gender inequality) that cause or reinforce such abuses (Nagy 2013).  A more holistic picture is required that takes these deeper “root causes” and systemic patterns of violation into account.  However, this may make “success” even more elusive, at least in the short-term.


What can we expect from the Canadian TRC?

Despite its relatively high budget and five-year time frame, the TRC has already said it will be difficult to accomplish everything it wishes to achieve (see the TRC’s interim report).  An important lesson to learn from elsewhere is that truth commissions are only the start of a long process, particularly when their mandates involve reconciliation.  In some respects, perceptions of the “success” of a truth commission depend on how expectations are managed.  I suggest that different stakeholders in the process have very different expectations.  It is my personal sense, based on various official speeches and documents, that the government believes that once the TRC’s term comes to an end, closure will have been reached and Canada will have met its obligations through Apology, compensation and commemoration.  I want to resist this kind of positioning and insist that reconciliation has to be a longer-term process that involves substantive acts of decolonization.  Ironically, if we follow the government’s logic, the TRC could very quickly be labeled a “success,” whereas the path I urge does not led to such an immediate outcome. 

Rather than formulating a set of measures for success, I close with a couple of questions that might help us think through what to expect, or not, of the TRC in its remaining time, as well as what might happen afterwards.   Do survivors, their families and their communities feel acknowledged and satisfied? Will the TRC’s recommendations to government and churches be implemented? Do settler Canadians engage with the process, and how?  Will the face-to-face work of healing and reconciliation continue in local communities with proper supports?  Will broader inequities and opportunities in the Indigenous-settler relationship be addressed and taken up?



Works Cited

Hayner, Priscilla B. 2011. Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

James, Matt. 2010. Uncomfortable Comparisons: The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in International Context. Les Ateliers de l'éthique / The Ethics Forum 5 (2): 24-35.

Nagy, Rosemary. 2013. The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. International Journal Transitional Justice 7 (1): 52-73.

Olsen, Tricia D., Leigh A. Payne, and Andrew G. Reiter. 2010. The Justice Balance: When Transitional Justice Improves Human Rights and Democracy. Human Rights Quarterly 32 (4): 980-1007.

Wiebelhaus-Brahm, Eric. 2010. Truth Commissions and Transitional Societies: The impact on human rights and democracy. New York: Routledge.

[1] “Disappearance” refers to the kidnapping and killing of political dissidents; their bodies are never found and there is no record or trace of their violent removal from society.

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