London, 15 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A leading jurist says he strongly backs the setting up of a South African-style Truth Commission to investigate human-rights violations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, saying it would help the country achieve postwar reconciliation.
Richard Goldstone, a judge of South Africa's constitutional court, is a former prosecutor of the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, set up to try suspected war criminals.
Speaking in London earlier this week (Jan. 12), he said Bosnia-Herzegovina can learn from the example of the Truth Commission set up by the government of Nelson Mandela to cast light on crimes against humanity committed in South Africa during the white-supremacist apartheid era.
Goldstone told the Royal Institute of International Affairs that a similar investigation process should be launched into human-rights violations committed in Bosnia during the ethnic war involving Serbs, Muslims and Croats. He said there is strong support, particularly from non-governmental organizations working in postwar Bosnia, for a commission to investigate crimes such as murder, rape and ethnic cleansing.
"I think it would be important for the people of that country (Bosnia) to know what human-rights violations were committed by all sides. It would be very important for reconciliation and for building the future. What's been wanting in former Yugoslavia has been any truth-telling, has been any public acknowledgment, of the most terrible human-rights violations that have been carried on in that part of the world."
Truth Commissions were first established in the Latin American countries to cast light on the so-called "disappearances," murders and killings of government opponents, often under military dictatorships. The first of them, none-too-successful, was created in Bolivia in 1974. The first to receive international attention was set up by the democratic government in Argentina after the fall of the Galtieri military junta.
"The Argentinean Truth Commission received a huge amount of international interest, and that was set up in 1983. It investigated cases of over 900 people who had disappeared. This horrible concept of 'disappearances' -- something no-one had heard of before the South American tragedies. People weren't murdered, they weren't killed in detention, they simply disappeared."
The new democratic government in Chile, too, also appointed a Truth Commission to investigate rights violations committed during the 17-year military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Set up with the consent --albeit grudging-- of Pinochet himself, it was severely limited in scope. It was not allowed, for example, to hold its hearings in public or to name those guilty of crimes.
Still, with commissioners appointed from across the political spectrum, the Chilean Commission went about its work conscientiously, investigating 3,000 cases of "disappearances" and presenting its final report on public television. When he formally accepted the report, then-President Patricio Aylwin apologized to the Chilean people for what had been done to them during the Pinochet era.
Goldstone said that the success of the Chilean Truth Commission had a big impact on South Africa, persuading the Mandela Government that a similar public investigation process was needed to identify human-rights violations during the apartheid years. In particular, Goldstone cited cases like the police killing of black activist Steve Biko.
Goldstone acknowledged that the investigation by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is controversial. But, he said, it is helping the country to heal its apartheid wounds. Among other things, its 3,500-page final report focused on how different sectors of society --business, churches, journalists-- behaved under apartheid.
"In my considered opinion, South Africa is a far healthier society than it would have been without a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The denials of people responsible for human-rights violations during the apartheid era would have gained more and more currency. Hence, the importance of exposing the truth. There are really very few and certainly no rational people in South Africa today --and I talk particularly of the white community-- who can, and therefore do, deny the terrible human rights violations that were committed during the apartheid era."
Goldstone said South Africa has shown it is possible to hold broad hearings into rights abuses, while conducting criminal prosecutions against individual perpetrators in the courts. He says there is no contradiction in the process, and Bosnia can learn from its example.
However, Goldstone said the issue of whether there is to be a Truth Commission in Bosnia, or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, "is a matter for the people of Bosnia and former Yugoslavia to decide." He said such a commission cannot be imposed on people against their will. But if there is a genuine desire both to expose the truth, and to achieve reconciliation, then the creation of a credible public body, with an efficient investigation department, makes sense.
"I have no doubt that the acknowledgment that comes with the exposure of truth is an indispensable aid to reconciliation, an indispensable aid to attempting to prevent a repetition in the future of these terrible events...."
Goldstone added that such a process could act as "an international deterrent" to "would-be criminals" who have to fear that they might some day be brought to account for their actions.