Building Democracies on a Foundation of Truth


By Eduardo González

On March 24, the United Nations commemorates the International Day for the Right to the Truth, honoring the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, killed on that date in 1980, for his courageous defense of his country’s downtrodden.

The right to the truth, according to a growing body of jurisprudence and international practice, recognizes that victims of international crimes, and society, have a right to learn the facts, circumstances, and responsibilities of atrocities, such as torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary executions.

A quick glance at some corners of our world reveals that societies poor and rich are implementing truth commissions as a way to comply with the rights of victims and contribute to reconciliation and the rule of law.

“Societies poor and rich are implementing truth commissions as a way to comply with the rights of victims.”
    Tunisia, whose 2010 revolution helped spark the “Arab Spring,” is currently debating a comprehensive bill that would establish a Truth and Dignity Commission to examine human rights violations committed by Tunisian governments since the country’s independence in 1956, in spite of the challenging political environment.

In Colombia, negotiators representing the government and FARC rebels are reportedly making progress toward a peace agenda that would include truth seeking and guaranteeing the rights of victims as elements of a peace agreement to end almost 50 years of conflict.

In Brazil, a historic National Truth Commission is listening to survivors and scouring official archives to establish the facts about torture and killings committed during the country’s military dictatorship.

And even in Canada, with no recent history of dictatorship or war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to finalize a five-year process examining one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history: the treatment of thousands of Aboriginal children, forced to live in Indian Residential Schools established for purpose of cultural assimilation.

Why are societies so different from one another betting on the power of truth to process deep historic trauma and set a path toward a better social contract? And why do other countries assume that the best policy toward dealing with a troubling past is to hide it or deny it?

After all, some democratic transitions, like Spain’s, were built on the enforced silence of victims, and the most powerful nation in the world, the United States, is notoriously reluctant to conduct any official examination of the legacy of its policies of intervention in favor of allied tyrants all over the world or entrenched discrimination against minorities in its own country.

Can you build a solid, legitimate democracy on the sands of silence, or does truth provide a more trustful foundation?

What Tunisia, Colombia, Brazil, and Canada believe is that exploring the past will have an empowering effect for victims who are accustomed to abuse and invisibility, encouraging them to trust their fellow citizens – and their government – again; that truth and moral condemnation of wrongdoing will make institutions more accountable and future abuse less likely; that education about the facts will provide new generations with the instruments to reject violence and discrimination.

In countries like Spain and the United States, it would seem that the government, in spite of democratic principles, believes it needs to act as the stern parent of a society that cannot handle the truth or simply act to protect certain interests at the expense of full disclosure.    
"Can you build a solid, legitimate democracy on the sands of silence, or does truth provide a more trustful foundation?"

But then these governments react with confusion when the wounds of the past are shown to be wide open, as in Spain, when Republican flags fly in the midst of mass demonstrations against politicians; and in the United States, when leaked classified information challenges the veil of silence over abuses committed during the War on Terror.

This is a key question of our time. Fifty years ago, governmental secrecy was the norm, and victims were pushed outside the public sphere as uncomfortable – and generally discredited – reminders of the abuse of power. Now, whether in the midst of authoritarian brutality or structural oppression, they are calling for transparency and knowledge to be an essential part of a powerful conception of citizenship.

Governments that decide to ignore this new trend are defying the tide of history.

Eduardo González is director of ICTJ's Truth and Memory program. This opinion piece appeared in The Star, Kathmandu Post, Kantipur Online, and in Spanish in Semana. Photo: Detail of mural by Salvadoran artist Julio Reyes, made in 2005, that forms part of the Monument to Truth and Memory.