What is the Role of Truth Commissions in Peace Processes in Africa?


Today, the African Union, in partnership with the Kofi Annan Foundation and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), opened a high-level conference at the AU Commission headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on the role of official truth commissions as a part of peace processes.

The two-day conference, titled “Truth Commissions and Peace Processes in Africa,” has gathered senior staff from the African Union and member states as well as international and national experts to reflect on lessons learned from truth commissions that have emerged from peace processes in Africa and other continents. Relevant countries under discussion are Tunisia, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Mali, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Colombia.

ICTJ President David Tolbert stressed in his opening remarks that addressing the underlying causes of violent conflict is fundamental for establishing sustainable peace and highlighted the essential role that truth commissions have to play in this respect. Mr. Tolbert explained: “Peace cannot be founded upon a willed amnesia about the past nor a renunciation of accountability. On the other hand, for this search to be meaningful, it cannot be a mechanistic response or yielding to an external imposition, but rather the result of a deep comprehension of the reasons for truth-seeking and justice rooted in the local context.”

The conference’s keynote speech was delivered this morning by Mr. Kofi Annan, Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation.

“From my own experience, I can say that we have learnt that justice is not an impediment to peace – it is an essential partner. Of course, the parallel pursuit of justice and peace does present testing challenges for peacemakers,” said Mr. Annan.

“It is sometimes argued that to move forward after a conflict, past atrocities need to be put aside until such a time when the social fabric might be strong enough to deal with them,” Annan continued. “I agree that we cannot prescribe how individual nations and victims should deal with the past. But societies as a whole cannot build legitimate institutions grounded in the rule of law and respect for human rights if latent conflicts and bitterness about the past remain unaddressed. Societies and individuals are entitled to know the truth about mass human rights violations. It is a human right and a value in itself. We should not silence the past.”

In addition to Mr. Annan’s keynote address, Amb. Smail Chergui, Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union, and Mr. David Tolbert, President of ICTJ, delivered opening statements.

“I would like to emphasize that in our efforts to promote peace, reconciliation must take center stage,” said Chergui. “Reconciliation involves the search for truth and justice, and it is here where we must play a supportive role.”

Tolbert added: "We should not think of a truth commission as a substitute for the judicial system or judicial processes. Truth has a value that is an independent value: as a way to express moral condemnation of serious human rights violations and atrocities, as a basis for committing to meaningful reforms; as a means to recognize the dignity of victims, just to name a few.”

The African Union debuted its Draft Framework for Transitional Justice at the conference. Abdul Mohamed, Chief of Staff of the AU High-Level Implementation Panel and Amb. Salah Hammad, Senior Human Rights Officer, AU Political Affairs Department, presented the draft at a panel discussion Monday morning. The document proposes a commitment to a cohesive transitional justice agenda across all AU member states. Among the first steps in the implementation plan is a human rights memorial at the African Union compound, in honor of the upcoming 22nd commemoration of the Rwandan genocide.

Central to these discussions is a report by ICTJ and the Kofi Annan Foundation, titled “Challenging the Conventional: Can Truth Commissions Strengthen Peace Processes?,” which explores many of the common assumptions about why truth commissions are created after armed conflict to address past abuses and what factors make them more likely to succeed – or fail.

The conference was organized as part of an ongoing initiative by ICTJ and the Kofi Annan Foundation to promote dialogue on the experiences and lessons learned from truth commissions that have emerged from peace processes. Past events have been held in Bogotá, Colombia ; Geneva, Switzerland; and New York, United States.

The report is available in English and Spanish. The French edition was launched today at the conference.

PHOTO: Abdul Mohamed, Kofi Annan, Smail Chergui and David Tolbert address senior officials at the joint ICTJ, Kofi Annan Foundation and AU conference ‘Truth Commissions and Peace Processes in Africa’ in Addis Ababa. (The AU Peace and Security Department)