Truth is the Foundation of Justice: ICTJ Launches Global Campaign for International Day for the Right to the Truth


When Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero delivered mass on the evening of March 24, 1980 in El Salvador’s capital, it is likely that he knew this sermon would be his last.

Tensions in El Salvador were rising, as government repression against poor, marginalized peasants had grown increasingly brutal. Just a day before, Archbishop Romero had stood before a crowd of hundreds of both citizens and state security forces, pleading for an end to the violence. Romero knew it was risky to publicly denounce the actions of the Salvadoran security forces: several of Romero’s colleagues in the Church had already been killed for their dissent.

Now, standing before the congregation gathered in the small hospital chapel, Romero concluded his remarks. As he began to approach the altar, his assassins arrived at the door. One fatal shot was fired, and the killers fled.

Public outrage over Archbishop Romero’s assassination erupted, tipping El Salvador into a 12-year internal conflict. In 1992, a UN-brokered peace agreement included a mandate for a truth commission. Among the many cases it investigated, the killing of Archbishop Romero was discovered to have been planned by former army major Roberto d’Aubuisson.

In December 2010, the UN recognized the work of Romero when it proclaimed that victims of atrocities and their families had the right to know the truth. It designated March 24 as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. To mark March 24, ICTJ affirms that victims of human rights violations, and society, have the right to know the truth.

Truth is the Foundation of Justice

This year, ICTJ's campaign for the International Day for the Right to the Truth centers around the theme, “Truth is the Foundation of Justice.” This notion, fundamental to the idea of a comprehensive approach to justice, is explored through several new releases from ICTJ:

    In Search of the Truth

An online multimedia feature that presents a step-by-step look at the creation of a truth commission, through engaging visuals, such as photo galleries, videos, and animations.

Also available in Spanish and Arabic

    Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating an Effective Truth Commission

This major new ICTJ publication charts the life and work of a truth commission, from beginning to end.

Also available in Spanish, Arabic, French, and Portuguese

    Why Seek the Truth About the Past? A Global Conversation

An ongoing, cross-platform conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and our website featuring powerful quotes on the right to the truth, and the chance to share your ideas with us.

Also available in Spanish and Arabic

Why is Truth the Foundation of Justice?

Throughout history, countries undergoing political upheaval or recovering from an era of mass atrocity usually have had more differences than similarities. Yet as contexts of transition, they are unified by the challenge of confronting a legacy of widespread violence and repression.

But those who set out to uncover the truth about the past often confront particular challenges. Repressive regimes that draw strength from shrouding their actions in secrecy understand how powerful the truth can be and so deliberately rewrite history in order to legitimize themselves.

Establishing the truth about serious crimes can help communities to understand the causes of abuse and end them. The truth can support the healing process after traumatic events. It can also restore personal dignity, often after years of stigma, and safeguard against impunity for perpetrators or denial by the government or society at large.

After volatile shifts in authority or social and political structures, the search for the truth isn’t just desirable, it is necessary: Without accurate knowledge about past violations, it is difficult to prevent them from ever happening again.

“Throughout history, the courageous and tireless struggle of victims and their families to uncover the crimes of the past teaches us that establishing the truth is a crucial step towards the transformation to a just society. Truth is often the first step to societal transformation through criminal accountability or institutional reform. But without it, cycles of abuse are bound to continue.” - David Tolbert, president, ICTJ

From Argentina to South Africa to Canada, truth-seeking forums of many kinds have played a powerful role in documenting and redressing past human rights violations.

Truth commissions are widely recognized as the most effective mechanisms of truth-seeking. To date, more than 40 official truth commissions have been created to provide an account of past abuses and provide a platform for victims to have their testimonies be officially heard.

Change may be inevitable- but the direction of that change is not. On March 24th, we invite you to join ICTJ as we stand with victims, their families, and others working to cast light upon grave abuses, of the past and present.

The ‘Voice of the Voiceless:’ the Story of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero

Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (August 15, 1917 - March 24, 1980) was a prominent Roman Catholic priest in El Salvador during the 1960s and 1970s becoming Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.

“Let's not be afraid to be left alone if it's for the sake of the truth…" -Oscar Arnulfo Romero

After working with poor rural communities in Santiago de María, Romero could see that state violence against political opponents was escalating. What before had been the sporadic torture, execution, and kidnapping of opponents of the right-wing government were now becoming commonplace. Women were being raped and brutalized; the bodies of the slain were left in the street.

Romero knew that his activism for the rights of Salvadorans was already drawing sharp criticism from his colleagues and superiors in the Catholic Church, who were increasingly shocked by his determination to confront the Salvadoran government. But as a man deeply guided by the principles of his faith, he spoke to the public without fear.

"I do not believe in death without resurrection," he said. "If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people."

Not long after his death, peaceful rallies turned violent as police opened fire on protesters. News footage of unarmed demonstrators being shot down on the steps of the National Cathedral turned the eyes of the world on El Salvador.

The 12-year internal conflict between El Salvador’s US-backed right-wing military government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) claimed the lives of an estimated 75,000 people.

Today, Romero is remembered as one of many examples of the courageous defenders of justice and dignity. Romero’s dedication to end targeted killing, brutality, and marginalization of the poorest citizens of El Salvador was officially acknowledged by the UN in 2010 through the designation of the International Day of the Right to the Truth.

ICTJ’s Truth and Memory program provides technical support to truth and memory initiatives around the world in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Ivory Coast, and Brazil. It supports national capacity building through trainings like ICTJ’s annual course on truth commissions, the most recent of which was held in Colombia. As part of its work, the Truth and Memory program produces expert research on innovative areas of truth-seeking, and it has recently published Strengthening Indigenous Rights Through Truth Commissions: A Practitioner’s Resource on the relationship between truth commissions and indigenous peoples.

Photos: TOP: Portion of a mural created in 2005 by Salvadoran artist Julio Reyes, which forms part of the Monument to Memory and Truth. (EDWIN MERCHES) BOTTOM: Mural depicting Archbishop Oscar Romero (Franco Folini)