Truth-seeking initiatives can play a powerful role in documenting and acknowledging human rights violations. Memory initiatives also contribute to the 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.
“Transitional justice has different mechanisms. I kept encouraging different women to file, because when you have similar testimonies from different people in the same period, they support each other. It tells you that violations were systemic.” – Najat, Tunisian woman who testified at the Truth and Dignity Commission
In the aftermath of a devastating conflict or a repressive regime, knowing the truth about the past is more than just an important step toward justice, it is a recognized human right to which all victims and survivors of armed conflict and repression are entitled. International law clearly recognizes the “right to know about the circumstances of serious violations of victims’ human rights and about who was responsible.”
It is especially important to uphold this right given that repressive regimes often deliberately rewrite history and deny atrocities in order to legitimize themselves, fuel mistrust, and even instigate new cycles of violence. Truth seeking contributes to the creation of a historical record that prevents this kind of manipulation.
Truth can help victims to find closure by revealing the details of the events they suffered, such as the fate of forcibly disappeared loved ones or why certain people were targeted for abuse. Moreover, knowing the truth about past events enables proper mourning practices, essential to most cultures, helping to achieve personal and communal healing.
Additionally, effective truth seeking is well placed to reinforce other transitional justice measures, such as prosecutions, reparations, and institutional reform. This is because truth-seeking measures can provide important and reliable information on which to build victim registries and criminal cases, develop essential skills for relevant stakeholders, and provide an important platform for victims to voice their experiences and demands.
Victims of human rights abuses cannot forget — and states have a duty to preserve the memory of such crimes. For this, architectural memorials, museums, and commemorative activities are indispensable educational initiatives to establish a historical public record that is beyond denial — and to help prevent repetition. In many cases, by launching commemoration activities, civil society has been the catalyst for states to assume their duties.
ICTJ’s Truth and Memory program works to ensure that victims’ rights are taken into account and integrated into the design and implementation of all types of truth-seeking and memory initiatives around the globe. Of equal importance is ensuring that these initiatives evolve to incorporate and respond to the new knowledge and lessons learned from such efforts, and on that basis advance victims’ rights in more effective and meaningful ways. ICTJ pursues this vision by working with key actors in specific country contexts and on the international stage to advance the right to truth and provide direct support and advice to truth-seeking and memory initiatives worldwide.
Specific steps ICTJ takes to maximize impact and advance toward these goals include ensuring that truth-seeking bodies respect victims’ right to truth and justice and acknowledge their expectations. We work to ensure that truth commission mandates are feasible and respond in each context to the complexity of the specific situation and the diverse constituencies demanding truth. We assist truth commissions to develop effective organizational structures, adopt research strategies needed to accomplish their tasks, and maintain a robust relationship with victims’ groups, other civil society actors, and the media to build their legitimacy and influence.
The right to truth demands different kinds of efforts besides formal truth commissions, such as civil society initiatives, memory work, and other activities aimed at promoting truth about the past and commemorating key events. We provide support to civil society-based truth initiatives by developing realistic assessments of the relevant political, social, and security context in which they will operate.
We also work with memorialization efforts to maximize their potential to educate and transform society, including by providing advice on victim consultation, memorial design, and commissioning.
Through comparative research and case-specific training activities, we endeavor to disseminate best practices and lessons learned so that future truth-seeking and memory initiatives can benefit from past experiences.
“I still haven't found my children's bones—neither have many other parents. Some of the children who were executed still don't have a marked grave. We want this memorial to be able to pay them respect. Such a memorial will make it harder for those who continue to deny they were murdered.” Fikret Bacic, Bosnian activist looking for his two children, killed in 1992
ICTJ’s work to support and promote truth-seeking and memorialization initiatives has helped to increase the role of victims in these processes and uphold their right to truth and justice.
Colombia: ICTJ has been heavily involved in the search for truth and justice in response to the long-running civil conflict in Colombia. We assisted with case-specific truth-seeking initiatives, including supporting a truth commission established by the Supreme Court to address the seizure by armed groups of the Palace of Justice in 1985, as featured in the ICTJ-produced documentary film La Toma. During the comprehensive negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group that took place in Cuba, ICTJ provided significant technical advice to all parties to ensure that the final peace agreement effectively addresses and incorporates truth and memory concerns.
Tunisia: After the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, ICTJ has been heavily invested in Tunisia’s truth-seeking process, notably in support of the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC). ICTJ advised stakeholders on the initial national consultation process on transitional justice and provided technical language and drafting advice for Tunisia’s historic Law on Transitional Justice, passed in 2013, which established the TDC. ICTJ then supported the TDC to develop its own bylaws and form, to take statements from victims. Gender has been mainstreamed throughout our work in Tunisia, with notable results including a specific mandate for the TDC to pay special attention to women’s experiences during the dictatorship and the creation of a Women’s Committee to ensure that the TDC has the expertise and resources to do so.
Lebanon: The Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, left a legacy of uncertainty and suffering, particularly around the fate of those who had been forcibly disappeared. ICTJ has worked closely with a number of civil society organizations on initiatives to preserve memories and support dialogue between different generations of Lebanese citizens about the past. Our oral history project, Badna Naaref, enabled young people to conduct oral history recordings with their families and neighbors about their personal experiences of the war. We also held a photo competition, exhibition, and associated series of dialogues with the project The War as I See It to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the civil war. For this, young people were invited to submit photographs showing their perception of the war then and now and reflecting on the war’s continuing impacts on youth.
Brazil: ICTJ provided considerable support to state and civil society entities to address the legacy of Brazil’s 20-year military dictatorship. In partnership with the Amnesty Commission of the Ministry of Justice and UN development Programme (UNDP), ICTJ conceptualized and facilitated the formation of a Latin American Network on Transitional Justice, to improve the knowledge and coordination between relevant stakeholders. We also worked with state partners in Brazil and UNDP to produce a comprehensive handbook, “Truth Seeking: Elements of an Effective Truth Commission.” This practical resource has served as an invaluable guide for not just the Brazilian National Truth Commission but other truth-seeking bodies around the world.
Morocco: The Equity and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate human rights violations committed in Morocco between 1956 and 1999. ICTJ provided it with technical assistance, based on best-practice experiences from other commissions, including recommending the use of public hearings for wider dissemination of the truth.
Sierra Leone: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as a condition of the peace agreement that ended Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war in 1999. ICTJ provided ongoing technical assistance and support to this body including, most critically, around its relationship with the Special Court for Sierra Leone – an issue that had been largely ignored by other stakeholders.
“Persisting in the refusal to acknowledge great harms in itself generates new harms” Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Repetition
Truth Commissions and Peace Processes: To promote dialogue on the experiences and lessons learned from truth commissions that have emerged from peace processes, ICTJ partnered with the Kofi Annan Foundation to conduct a series of high-level conferences in Geneva, New York, Bogotá, and Addis Ababa. The discussions and debates at these events centered around the joint publication Challenging the Conventional: Can Truth Commissions Strengthen Peace Processes?, which uses a series of analytical pieces, case studies, and summary findings to guide policymakers on how truth-seeking processes can better support peace processes.
Rule of Law: Based on our comparative expertise, ICTJ made substantial contributions to the “Truth Commissions” edition of the United Nations Rule-of-Law Tools for Post-Conflict States series.
Barcelona Course: In partnership with the Barcelona International Peace Resource Center, ICTJ has hosted seven annual training courses on truth commissions for over 200 participants, including practitioners, academics, government officials, and UN staff. Many of the participants have subsequently applied the knowledge and skills gained to their work with existing truth-seeking bodies in different country contexts or to support truth seeking in other ways, such as through holding trainings, conducting youth engagement activities, producing and disseminating relevant materials, and hosting dialogues and other interactive events.
Indigenous Rights: ICTJ has worked to advance the rights of indigenous persons through truth seeking in a number of ways. We provided technical and practical assistance to help the Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Maine, USA) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Canada) provide justice for violations committed against their respective indigenous populations. Additionally, ICTJ published the first-ever practitioner’s resource on the subject, *Strengthening Indigenous Rights Through truth Commissions. Synthesizing lessons learned from contexts such as Canada, Côte d'Ivoire, Guatemala, Nepal, Paraguay, and Peru, this resource informs and supports actors involved in future truth processes to fully uphold the rights of indigenous peoples and, by law, to consult them on all issues that affect them.
“I think that many ideas and concepts [from the course] were meaningful in my work. The fact that we had the opportunity to have as trainers experts with different backgrounds and experiences in transitional justice could only enhance and empower our skills and knowledge in every part of the process. Each one of them provided us with details and steps to follow to make it successful and more efficient. They taught us that transitional justice can only be successful when it is centered on victims.” –Comment from an attendee of ICTJ’s Intensive Course on Truth Commissions