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David Tolbert Headshot

To Build Peace, Seek Truth About the Past

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Ending armed conflict is a Herculean task. Negotiators and mediators not only face the challenge of persuading warring groups to lay down their arms but also trying to ensure that the conflict does not restart. Dating back to the 1980s, when peace settlements were made across Latin America, truth commissions have become an important component of peace negotiations.

Truth commissions coming out of peace agreements, often overseen by the United Nations, have sought to provide countries like El Salvador and Guatemala with the facts, root causes, and social toll of past human rights violations. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in the aftermath of apartheid, has become perhaps the best known example. All of these commissions worked from the notion that society's reckoning with the ugly truth about the crimes of repressive regimes would help ensure rights for all citizens and possibly contribute to reconciliation.

Ever since, countries emerging from conflict or authoritarianism have increasingly looked to truth commissions, and the recommendations they make, as a key way to contribute to the redress of past abuses and prevent new violations from occurring. These high expectations may explain why the number of truth commissions has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, from just seven established before 1990, to 11 the following decade, to 22 that have begun work between 2000 and 2010, with many the result of peace negotiations.

From Nepal to Kenya, from Solomon Islands to Sierra Leone, peace negotiators have turned to truth commissions to respond to determined calls from victims and human rights activists for justice to be on the peace agenda. However, sometimes their inclusion in peace agreements was seen as way to tick the "justice box," without the necessary commitment to see the process through. In fact, the idea to establish a truth commission has stalled in some countries, neglected by policymakers.

Some commissions have failed to adequately address victims' rights; others have been proposed in the hopes of avoiding trials for perpetrators, as in the case of Nepal, where a presidential ordinance allows recommendations for amnesties for perpetrators of gross human rights violations, in contravention of international principles. In other cases, like Cote d'Ivoire, commissions have been established without the necessary consultation, planning, or political commitment to ensure their success. Still others, most notably in Kenya, have suffered from overly ambitious mandates wedded to conflicting and diminishing political interests. Commissions have struggled to keep their truth-seeking process free of political interference and see their recommendations acted on.

The lessons we have learned clearly illustrate that the time is right for a critical look at what challenges peace negotiators and mediators face when including a truth commission in a peace process. This is especially pertinent now, as more truth commissions are being established than at any previous point in history and countries like Colombia look to them as a possible way of building sustainable peace. We must examine why some commissions established through peace processes have stalled or failed, and what can be done to minimize the risk of commission failure so that they contribute effectively to the consolidation of the peace.

Including truth commissions in a peace agreement requires diligent work and good judgment. Commissions cannot be established as a cosmetic measure without attention to lessons learned or human rights principles. On the contrary, they must be firmly anchored in the recognition that victims of gross human rights violations and their societies have a right to know the truth, as uncomfortable or worrisome as that may be to ruling elites. At the same time, truth-seeking must respond to the concrete needs and characteristics of each situation: a single model cannot be uniformly applied. Mediators, negotiating parties, and their societies need to work creatively to forge mandates that will be effective.

Genuine societal dialogue needs to occur in order to set clear goals for truth seeking, avoiding false expectations or the illusion of a "magic wand" that produces automatic reconciliation. Truth commissions are not mere fact-finding inquiries: they mobilize society to establish and explain the facts; they provide a platform to those most marginalized and include their voices in the national agenda; they inevitably challenge the status quo with the collective power of oppressed voices.

Truth commissions need support in the form of trained staff, material resources, and funding delivered in a timely way. The parties of a peace process must ensure that there is national and international commitment to such an endeavor. Truth commissions need actual cooperation and the legal framework to access information, including sensitive archives that spoilers may want to hide.

Truth commissions also need leadership with unimpeachable integrity, men and women with a proven commitment to human rights who are capable of inspiring trust, engaging with the broadest communities, and building team work. Some commissions -- like Kenya's -- have found themselves ensnared in paralyzing controversy around the aptness of chairpersons with conflicts of interest with the inquiry.

We have come a long way since the historic "Nunca Más" report penned by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, thirty years ago. We now know that truth commissions exist in symbiosis with criminal justice, reparations for victims, and institutional reform, elements crucial to building long-term peace and civic trust in countries emerging from conflict and state repression. Their reports can serve as the foundation of a common narrative for divided societies struggling to face hard truths about the troubled past. They are not magic wands, but they can be catalysts of real social change.

To give truth commissions a chance of fulfilling their potential, it is crucial that peace mediators, and all of us, learn from both failure and success. Above all, we must renew our commitment to the victims and their voices, showing the depths of human suffering, but also proclaiming the promise of justice and hope.