Civil Society-Led Truth-Seeking Initiatives: Expanding Opportunities for Acknowledgment and Redress

At a time when truth-seeking and reparations initiatives are taking hold across the United States, this report offers reflections from various civil society-led truth-seeking processes. Drawing on case studies from the United States, Colombia, Scotland, and West Papua, the report identifies lessons learned and best practices from these experiences and presents practical options for activists considering similar initiatives.

Cover of the report Civil Society-Led Truth-Seeking Initiatives

This study reviews civil society-led truth-seeking initiatives in different regions of the world drawing on their experiences, methodologies, and contributions. It identifies lessons learned and best practices and presents practical options for activists considering similar endeavors. The report is inspired by and builds on the work of transitional justice practitioners, including at ICTJ, who deploy wide-ranging modalities to advance truth seeking, including oral history, artwork, theatrical productions, reenactments, museum exhibits, memorials, films, and documentation projects.

The right to the truth is a fundamental component of redress for victims of massive human rights violations. Institutional silence, suppression of complaints, and refusal to acknowledge such violations further perpetuates them by protecting and enabling those responsible. In many contexts, government-supported truth commissions are not possible. Moreover, total reliance on state-sanctioned formats can result in one-size-fits-all approaches to truth seeking, devoid of creativity or potential.  In the absence of political will, civil society actors have responded to demands for truth by devising and carrying out truth-seeking efforts independently, using a wide array of tools and methods. Civil society-led truth-seeking initiatives provide a practical channel by which communities can respond to demands for redress when the state fails to deliver on its obligations to protect victims’ rights.

While truth-seeking initiatives can take many forms, they generally share three main objectives: (1) establish the facts about human rights violations that remain disputed or denied and validate different interpretations and analyses of those facts; (2) protect, acknowledge, and empower victims and survivors; and (3) inform public policy, promote institutional reform, and contribute to social and political transformation.

Through an examination of case studies from the United States, Colombia, Scotland, and West Papua, the report highlights common considerations and procedural questions that civil society groups should consider when designing and implementing a truth-seeking mechanism. These considerations can help inspire and guide civil society actors as they lead truth-seeking efforts in the United States and around the world.