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Phase One:

Peace Agreement Establishes a Truth Commission

A truth commission can make a fundamental contribution to stable and lasting peace by recognizing the victims’ experiences and sorrow.Fernando Travesi, ICTJ Deputy Program Manager, and Félix Reátegui, former ICTJ Senior Associate, Truth and Memory Program

Truth Commissions with Reconciliation as an Objective (Click image to enlarge)

During peace negotiations, the parties involved in an armed conflict may decide that a truth commission should be a component of the peace agreement.

The language used in the agreement to establish the truth commission will have implications for the success of the commission. So will the specificity and clarity of the agreement, which can influence public reception of the commission as well as whether or not the commission is taken seriously by important contributors.


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Phase Two:

Codifying the Commission in Law

Once a peace agreement has provided for the establishment of a truth commission, the commission’s mandate must be codified and defined according to its

  • Objectives
  • Functions to fulfill those objectives
  • Scope of inquiry
  • Guaranteed powers, duration of operation, and resources

It is necessary to formalize the mandate of all commissions. The mandate can either be enacted with an explicit legislative act (such as passing a national law) or outlined within the informal provisions of a peace agreement (as when the commission relies on the peace agreement for its mandate).

Commissions with Mandates Established by Formal Law

Commissions with Mandates Established by Peace Agreements


  • Can generate debate among representatives of different constituencies and garner public participation
  • Can lend much-needed legitimacy to a truth-seeking instrument
  • Under some constitutions, passage by law may be necessary to endow the commission with strong investigative powers


  • With strong institutional and political support, truth commissions that are not beholden to legislative action may face fewer obstacles and less chance of a corrupted mandate


  • Can be slow
  • Must compete with many other legislative initiatives
  • Legislators with little interest or knowledge regarding truth-seeking processes can imbue the bill with weak language


  • In the absence of public or legislative debate, there is even greater critical need for strong, capable truth commissioners
  • Truth commissions that are not vetted by legislative or public debate processes are more susceptible to flawed peace agreements and have fewer platforms to recover from weak language or insufficient detail



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Phase Three:

Appointing Commissioners

Commissioners are appointed to lead the truth commission. The quality of these commissioners is central to a truth commission’s effectiveness. Bad appointments can unravel the gains of earlier phases of the process.

Essential characteristics of commissioners:

  • Possess the moral authority and political skill necessary to reconcile conflict
  • Inspire trust and obtain effective cooperation from necessary contributors
  • Have clarity of vision to interpret mandates
  • Have freedom to act independently and with integrity

National commissioners possess important firsthand knowledge about the societies within which a commission is happening, but their impartiality may also be affected by internal conflicts or biases.

International commissioners are often brought in for their technical competencies and experiences in truth-seeking operations. For this reason, several post-conflict truth commissions have mandated the participation of international commissioners.

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Phase Four:

Operations and Reporting

The regular operations of a truth commission fall under these general areas: investigations, outreach, and management.

Investigations: Typically, a commission with adequate funding and staff initiates ambitious investigations, seeking out and collecting the testimony of victims and witnesses, political leaders, and former combatants. An expansive mandate leads to more complex investigations, requiring skilled researchers from many different disciplines.

Outreach: Outreach is conducted to support investigations. Outreach activities include partnering with civil society organizations, disseminating information to the public, and providing a platform for victims and survivors to share their experiences publicly.

Management: Managing a large operation that has adequate staff, an appropriate presence on the ground, and effective communications requires efficient support services. Thus, commissions must assemble a compact and efficient management team. A management team can be the critical facilitator of access to public resources and international donations.

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Phase Five:

Final Report and Recommendations of the Truth Commission

The fact that the Final Report’s main conclusions and recommendations were announced publicly in the presentation has been recognized by Guatemalan society not only as a demonstration of transparency but also of respect for the armed conflict’s 200,000 victims. United Nations Office for Project Services, The Operations of the Historical Clarification Commission in Guatemala, 41

At the end of its tenure, a truth commission is expected to produce a comprehensive report presenting its main findings and recommendations. This creates a surge of public interest in the commission’s mandate, members, and conclusions. At this point, alliances formed by the commission with civil society and international actors become instrumental to ensuring that the report is disseminated and fairly addressed by society.

Not all truth commissions are mandated to present final reports publicly. However, encouraging the public presentation and discussion of the final report is important, not just to guaranteeing that society has access to the commission’s main findings, but also to ensuring that its policy recommendations are discussed and implemented as appropriate.

Implementation of recommendations can be the task most wrought with challenges for a truth commission and may need to be taken up by additional mechanisms.