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UN: International Justice -- The Role of Truth Commissions (Part 3)

  • Robert McMahon

Inspired by a successful experiment in South Africa, a growing number of countries in transition are setting up truth and reconciliation commissions to help them cope with abuses of the recent past. Human rights experts strongly support such efforts as a complement to war crimes tribunals and as a way of purging nations of guilt and lies. But they caution that a balance of views and transparency are key to the success of truth commissions.

New York, 7 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Truth and reconciliation commissions are emerging in many of the world's recent trouble spots, employed as an essential part of reform alongside elections and new constitutions.

Former dictatorships in Latin America and Africa, successor states to Yugoslavia and the UN-administered territory of East Timor have set up or are planning to create truth commissions. They are seeking to follow the example of South Africa, which held what was believed to be the first open truth and reconciliation commission in the mid-1990s following the end of apartheid.

South Africa still struggles with crime, corruption and lingering divisions between whites and blacks, but its truth commission is seen as placing it on the path to reform. The commission -- which reviewed human rights abuses committed between 1960 and 1994 -- is also credited with helping to defuse the threat of racial reprisals by the country's black majority.

Alex Boraine served as deputy chairman of the South African commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu and is president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York. He is advising authorities in 14 countries on the mechanics of setting up truth commissions. In each instance, Boraine says, he sees a desire by nations to break free from old animosities:

"Many, many people don't want to go back where they were, and they're not quite sure how to get out of it. The morass is there, and it's holding them back. They try to dismiss the past, and it comes back to haunt them. They try to deal with the past and then it risks all kinds of unrest and revisiting. So [the key is] to know how to deal with the past without dwelling in it."

In the UN-administered territory of East Timor, the Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission has been set up to look into the pattern of human rights violations committed in the context of the conflicts in its independence struggle from 1974 to 1999.

The Roman Catholic church, the dominant religious body in East Timor, is participating in the commission. Monsignor Anthony Frontiero is an envoy for the Holy See (Vatican) at the United Nations. He says one of the virtues of such a commission is that it can go beyond issues of crime and punishment and serve to sensitize populations to grave crimes.

"It's kind of reaching out for a radical response to what has been radically diminishing human dignity in the world, so that we can understand more clearly the potential we have for evil and try to be converted -- [to] try to change our hearts and our heads so we can respect one another and that has to go to respecting cultural differences and ethnic differences and so forth."

South Africa's Boraine is advising Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica on his newly appointed commission and is in contact with human rights activists seeking such bodies in Bosnia and Croatia. He says that, as in South Africa, denial of human rights violations is rampant in the former Yugoslavia. But Boraine says the root causes of the Balkan conflicts differ greatly from South Africa's circumstances. He says different approaches must be adopted to fit Yugoslavia's history.

"You cannot simply imitate the South African model. You have to take into account the politics of the place, the geography, the language, the culture, the customs, the nature of the conflict, the nature of the resolution of that conflict. It's all very different, but there are some similarities."

Truth commissions are typically quasi-judicial bodies authorized by governments to call witnesses and prosecute alleged perpetrators of crimes committed over a defined period of time. Unlike war crimes tribunals, which focus on prosecuting top-level defendants, truth commissions deal with lower-level suspects and sometimes more pervasive human rights abuses. Such commissions can be empowered to pay reparations to victims of human rights abuses, as well as grant amnesty from prosecution for those suspected of crimes.

Sonja Biserko heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and is currently a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. She supports the aims of such commissions but is critical of efforts underway in Yugoslavia. Biserko says she is concerned that Kostunica is catering to the wishes of Serb nationalists on the commission and is excluding human rights campaigners.

Biserko favors a slower, grass-roots approach to truth and reconciliation in Yugoslavia and strongly supports the war crimes tribunal in the Hague in its efforts to prosecute the leaders of conflicts that killed more than 200,000 people. Yugoslavs, she says, have to gradually prepare themselves to confront the sectors of society that contributed to the Balkan wars of the 1990s:

"We also have to denounce the main factors in Belgrade. This is the army, this is police, these are intellectual circles around the academy [universities], church and so on. These are all, so to say, sacred institutions in society, but they also have to be open for debate."

Robert Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation and director of programs on inter-state conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School. He says it is crucial for truth commissions such as Yugoslavia's to establish credibility from the beginning. In that respect, he says, South Africa is an important model.

"Clearly, you have to have a transparent set of regulations so that everyone knows what's happening, and you have to have procedures run in a fair and quasi-judicial way, which was one of the ways the South African method could establish itself from the beginning that it wasn't partisan, it wasn't tainted. It was simply trying to find out what had happened."

Truth commissions have been mentioned as a way for former communist states to deal with abuses of the communist era. But Rotberg says any such commissions must be focused on specific goals. He says if a post-communist country such as Moldova tried to examine its past, it would need to provide a clear catalog of abuses for a commission to investigate. Rotberg says there would need to be potential incentives as well as punishment behind a truth commission in a former communist state.

"The possibility of amnesty has to be there as the 'carrot,' and the 'stick' in each case has to be prosecution. And if in a place like Moldova, if there's no real stick, that is, if they are unprepared to prosecute anybody, then the truth commission won't get anyone to come and testify about real things."

Monsignor Frontiero of the Holy See's UN mission stresses that a truth commission, in which victims can express forgiveness as well as detail their suffering, can play a key role in national healing. Sometimes this is just as important, he says, as other reforms undertaken in post-conflict societies.

"It's not just political, economic or military interests that are going to win in this situation. It's somehow bringing peoples together, talking about things, acknowledging wrongdoing and forgiving."

South Africa's Boraine says one of the great successes of his country's commission was that the "masks were taken off" the perpetrators of crimes in the apartheid era. He says once South Africans began to face each other and recognize problems existed, the healing could begin.