Truth and Dignity for All, Even Our Enemies

03/24/2015 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

In 1986 I saw Oliver Stone's Salvador movie. I was 20 years old. The film told the story of, among other things, the government death squad assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. He was shot in March 1980 while giving communion at a small chapel near his cathedral. For Catholics, it is almost impossible to think of a more sacrilegious act. It is equally impossible to think of a stronger message from the forces of repression -- absolutely no one was safe; absolutely nowhere was safe. I had known almost nothing about the situation in El Salvador, but I know for a fact that I am not the only human rights lawyer who was inspired by the story of Romero and his bravery.

Romero had become the spokesman of the repressed and voiceless in the midst of El Salvador's brutal civil war. Seen originally as a relatively conservative figure, he grew more and more outspoken as he witnessed outrages against human dignity perpetrated by the repressive regime, including the murder of more than 30 of his priests. In 2010 the United Nations designated the anniversary of Romero's assassination an International Day for the Promotion of the Right to Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and the Dignity of Victims. It was wise and fitting for the UN to recognize the fundamental connection between the two ideas of truth and dignity, and Romero's commitment to them.

In the years since Romero's assassination (indeed now recognized as martyrdom by the Catholic Church under Pope Francis), the world has become a little more used to the idea that those responsible for the kinds of atrocities he spoke out against should be held accountable.

Central to that practice has been the idea that victims should be able to find out as much as possible about the circumstances of the abuses that occurred -- in terms of specific attacks and also the underlying social and institutional patterns and relations that gave rise to flagrant disregard for minimal standards of decency. This is the idea of truth we are speaking about.

What is the point of looking for that truth? Two reasons really. First, the idea that people have rights which they enjoy by virtue of their dignity as human beings (and nothing else) and that dignity is only meaningful if steps are taken to recognize it when it has been egregiously abused. Second, societies will not move on, or protect themselves from, periods of repression and abuse as long as a convenient pall of denial is allowed to obscure what went on. As Michael Ignatieff has said, the kind of truth we are talking about is the truth that "narrows the scope of permissible lies."

There are many ways to get to that kind of truth about human rights violations. In the 1990s, the idea of truth commissions captured the public imagination, especially when South Africa, inspired by the examples of Argentina and Chile, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address apartheid-era abuses. Twenty years later there is reason to be concerned about the way truth commissions may be sometimes cynically misused -- a perfunctory checking of a box to satisfy a transiently interested international community.

But truth commissions are not and should not be the only way that victims and societies seek the truth about violations that took place in their countries. Criminal prosecutions, exhumations, coroner's inquests, reparations and compensation procedures can all contribute to exposing practices and impacts of serial violations of human rights. Likewise, cases before regional and international human rights bodies, commissions of inquiry and exposure of corrupt institutions have a significant role.

Experiences in places as far apart as Chad and Guatemala have shown how a thorough examination of institutional archives can expose the twisted mindset, and practices, of those who directed state security forces and government agencies. Also sometimes underestimated is the importance of appropriate efforts to memorialize victims of abuse. While memorials do not uncover the truth, they frame truth in a way that society can see and touch, and cannot ignore.

We need to be careful to not put the truth in a "truth-commission-shaped box," a sanitized safe zone that limits the damage to the forces of repression. The pursuit of the truth is not a second-best option in the absence of other remedies: It is the most basic requirement of taking seriously the dignity of victims.

Different people need different things. Some people need to know the bare facts, to be told their disappeared father was indeed murdered, for example. Truth can bring closure, however painful. But a crucial element is frequently (perhaps always) acknowledgment. It is the acknowledgment, the recognition of harm, the recognition of disregarding the dignity of others that can help to make amends, restore trust and move societies towards a rights-respecting future. That acknowledgment can take many forms, from apologies to punishment to amending educational curricula to acknowledge atrocities and repression

Last year, Tunisia established a Truth and Dignity Commission to investigate the alleged abuses of the Ben Ali regime, removed from power during the revolution of 2011. It is the first time a commission has had such a name. It is a further welcome recognition of the connection between the two ideas.

Last week's atrocity in Tunisia threatens to kill off the last surviving flower of the "Arab Spring." Those who carried out the act could not have been more helpful to the former regime in Tunisia, which seeks to cover up abuses committed while it was propped up and tolerated by European and U.S. allies. Today Tunisia faces a choice between an excuse to slip back towards anti-democratic practices, or to stay firm in its commitment to truth in the cause of dignity.

And when abuses occur they must be exposed, not hidden "in the interests of security." When the truth about abuses is hidden, no one is safer in the long run.

Romero was committed to this idea even as he was accused by the Salvadoran government of being the stooge of communist insurgents. He faced the same calumny human rights defenders always face. The issue about human rights is that they are for everyone. By definition they benefit our enemies, just as they benefit us. The way to stop abuses of human rights is not to support them for our friends and deny them to our enemies. There is no surer way to erode the very rights we claim to hold dear.