Truth and Memory

Truth and Memory

Truth seeking initiatives can play a powerful role in documenting and acknowledging human rights violations. Memory initiatives also contribute to public understanding of past abuses. ICTJ’s Truth and Memory program seeks to advance the right to truth, and provides support and advice to truth and memory initiatives worldwide.

Photo of missing, Cambodia.

He's to have no funeral or lament,
but to be left unburied and unwept...
Sophocles, Antigone

Knowing the Truth is a Right

Societies and individuals are entitled to know the truth about mass human rights violations in the wake of armed conflict or repression. All cultures recognize the importance of proper mourning to achieve personal and communal healing.

International law clearly recognizes the right of victims and survivors to know about the circumstances of serious violations of their human rights and about who was responsible. International law continues to develop in this area and on the concept of a society’s right to the truth.

Truth-Seeking, including Truth Commissions

Repressive regimes deliberately rewrite history and deny atrocities to legitimize themselves. Truth-seeking contributes to the creation of a historical record that prevents this kind of manipulation. It can help victims find closure by learning more about the events they suffered, such as the fate of disappeared individuals, or why certain people were targeted for abuse.

Truth-seeking initiatives take many forms—including freedom of information legislation, declassification of archives, investigations into the missing and disappeared—and the establishment of non-judicial commissions of inquiry, including truth commissions.

Building from origins in Latin America, independent and effective truth commissions have become an essential part of transitional justice efforts around the world. As of early 2011, some 40 official truth commissions have been created to provide an account of past abuses.

Truth commissions include a number of investigative steps—protecting evidence, compiling archives, interviewing victims and key political actors, opening and publishing state information, and producing reports and recommendations.

In some cases where national governments have not established truth commissions, other official institutions—such as municipalities or ombudspersons—have created more limited official inquiries. There are also many examples of important truth seeking initiatives launched by civil society, faith-based communities and victim associations.

Unofficial, local or case-specific initiatives can sometimes instigate more comprehensive national efforts. Beyond this, truth-seeking can also lead the way to other transitional justice approaches such as vetting, prosecutions, and reparations.

Memory and Memorials

Victims of human rights abuses cannot forget, and states have a duty to preserve the memory of such crimes.

Architectural memorials, museums and commemorative activities are indispensable educational initiatives to establish the record beyond denial, and prevent repetition. In many cases, by launching commemoration activities, civil society has been the catalyst for states to assume their duties.

Examples of commemoration include:

  • Museums and monuments educating the public about past abuse, such as the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile, dedicated to present the history of the military dictatorship and document its abuses.
  • Spaces transformed to mark the site of a violation—such as Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, a former prison that is now South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
  • Activities of remembrance, like the annual March 24 demonstrations in Argentina, which mark the beginning of the 1970s military dictatorship. In Peru, relatives of the disappeared have joined efforts to knit a gigantic “Scarf of Hope” in memory of victims.

ICTJ’s Role

ICTJ supports the work of truth commissions in 12 countries, working with governments, civil society, and the international community. We also facilitate and assist on several unofficial truth projects.

We work with memorialization efforts to maximize their potential to educate and transform. We provide advice on memorial design, commissioning and victim consultation.

Our research and case-specific training activities and materials distill best practice so that future truth and memory initiatives can benefit from past experience.

Examples include:

  • We advised the truth commission in Morocco, established to investigate human rights violations committed from 1956–1990. Based on best practices from other commissions worldwide, we recommended the use of public hearings for dissemination of the truth.
  • We provided advice to unofficial truth seeking initiatives, such as the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the killings of union activists by the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis in North Carolina.
  • We assisted with case-specific truth-seeking initiatives in Colombia, and supported a Truth Commission set up by the Supreme Court to address the violent events surrounding the seizure of the Palace of Justice in 1985. These events were featured in the documentary film “La Toma”, which premiered at the Cartagena International Film Festival in March 2011.