According to Hayner’s widely accepted definition (Hayner 2001: 14), truth commissions are officially-sanctioned, temporary bodies that investigate a pattern of past abuses. They submit a final report as well as recommendations for follow-up transitional justice policies. Since the 1980s, there have been officially authorized truth commissions or significant non-state truth-finding projects in most countries of the Americas.
The invention of the truth commission was connected to three intertwined historical challenges. First, Latin American political violence in the second half of the twentieth century was characterized by both the systematic application of clandestine means of repression (so-called "disappearances") and the generalization of impunity. Secondly, various opposition and human rights movements of different strengths came into being with two main demands: complete disclosure of the past and an end to impunity. The third axis of Latin American reality is the power structures during transition. Given the attitude of the perpetrators that threatened to force their violent veto against any kind of active dealing with the past, the political elites sought alternative paths in transitional justice policy. After the Argentine military abdicated in 1983, the newly elected president Raúl Alfonsín announced the appointment of a “commission on the disappearance of persons” (CONADEP). He therewith not only reacted fundamentally to the demand for disclosing the military regime’s crimes but also especially to rumors and public statements that some of the disappeared were still alive and were being held in secret detention centers. The commission delivered its final report “Argentina – Nunca Más! (Argentina – Never Again!)” nine months later. It proved the forced disappearance of 8.963 persons and the existence of 340 secret torture centers. Since then, the truth commission rose into prominence and a “move from the courtroom to the hearing room” (Teitel 2003: 83) took place. The 1990s saw an increase in truth-finding efforts that mirrored a normative turn towards ethical goals such as “collective healing”, “reconciliation”, “nation-building”, and “peace-building”. As a result, the institutionalized truth-finding mechanism has steadily been improved and adjusted. Leading the process were human rights advocates and professionals who were included in decision-making processes due to their expertise. This has created a norm-building network of people with political and professional ambitions that – mainly in the North – exhibits nodes at which resources and information flows concentrate.
Three decades after its invention the truth commission has turned into a worldwide standardized instrument in coming to terms with the past. In the Americas, there are different types of truth commissions:
(1) There are a few flagship truth commissions, which represent cornerstones of the transnational process of building procedural as well as substantial norms of transitional justice. In general, these commissions have gained international attention (Argentina 1983-1984: Comisión Nacional para la Desaparición de Personas CONADEP, Chile 1990-1991: Comisión Nacional para la Verdad y Reconciliación, Guatemala 1997-1999: Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico de las Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos y los Hechos de Violencia que han Causado Sufrimientos a la Población Guatemalteca (CEH), Peru 2001-2003: Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación).
(2) Much less widely-circulated, but also substantial, were the results of a number of less famous and / or less ambitious truth commissions (El Salvador 1992-1993: Comisión de la Verdad para El Salvador, Uruguay 2000-2003: Comisión para la Paz, Haiti 1995-1996: National Commission for Truth and Justice, Panama2001-2002: Comisión de la Verdad, Paraguay 2003-2008: Comisón de Verdad y de Justicia).
(3) There are a number of failed truth commissions that never came into being or were disbanded before submitting a final report (Bolivia 1982-83, Ecuador 1996-97, Jamaica, Suriname).
(4) In some countries, there have been second-generation truth commissions that either tried to come to terms with past atrocities more deeply than their predecessors or that focused on specific crimes excluded from former truth-finding efforts (Chile 2003-2004: Comisión Nacional sobre Prisión Política y Tortura, Uruguay 2000-2003: Comisión para la Paz).
(5) The fifth type is constituted by single-issue truth commissions, focusing on specific events or patterns of violation (Honduras 2010-2011: Comisión de Verdad [focusing on the coup d’état of June, 2009], Canada 1991-1996: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 2008 – Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, United States 1980-1983: Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians [1942-1945]).
(6) Meanwhile, in some cases, truth-finding efforts have begun before an end of ‘the past’ is even foreseeable. The official Colombian Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación (since 2006) and the Miami-based non-official Task Force on Memory, Truth and Justice (dealing with Cuban history) constitute preemptive truth-finding efforts.
(7) Finally, there are a number of alternative truth commission-like projects that are realized by civil society actors or specific branches of the state (Brasil 1979-1985: Brasil Nunca Maís, Honduras 1993: Comisionado Nacional de los Derechos Humanos de Honduras, Mexico 2002-2006: Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado, Colombia: Colombia Nunca Más (since 2005), Guatemala 1996-1998: Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, United States 2004-2006: Greensboro Truth Commission (racially motivated killings of November 3, 1979).
At the time of this writing, the creation of two official truth commissions is under way in Venezuela (dealing with abuses committed during the Cuarta República, 1958-1998) and Brazil (Comissão Nacional de Verdade, covering the period from 1946-1988). Furthermore, there are more recent debates on the establishment of truth commissions in Jamaica, Haiti, and the United States (U.S. Accountability Project of the International Center for Transitional Justice, dealing with torture and other human rights abuses committed during the global “war on terror”).
It is important to note, however, that there is a broad spectrum of transitional justice mechanisms based on four main models. Initiating legal procedures against the administratively responsible, but also against willing or coerced executors of unspeakable atrocities is the first possibility states have in dealing with past dictatorships and civil wars. A second option, denominated as “lustration”, bars “incriminated” persons from public office. Reparation is the third basic option a state can follow in dealing with previous mass violence. It encompasses a bundle of possible measures ranging from moral rehabilitation of victims by official memorial sites and days, for instance, to individual monetary reparation and infrastructural compensation (de Greiff 2006). The fourth component – lacking institutional implementation until the late 1970s – is “truth”, the full disclosure of past patterns of human rights violations and acts of violence.
Truth commissions are often seen as an alternative to criminal proceedings. In the long run, however, truth-finding via truth commissions is but one step on the long journey of coming to terms with past atrocities. This journey usually encompasses other transitional justice mechanisms such as criminal proceedings and reparations.
Please cite as:
Oettler, Anika. 2012. “Truth Commission.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/t_Truth_Commission.html.
Teitel, Ruti G. 2003. "Transitional Justice Genealogy." Harvard Human Rights Journal Vol. 16 Spring, pp. 69-94.
Hayner, Priscilla B. 2001. Unspeakable Truths. Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. New York/London: Rotledge.
de Greiff, Pablo (Ed.) 2006. The Handbook of Reparations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.