Challenges of a Truth Commission Emerging from a Peace Process amid Widespread Social Demand for Truth

The last session of the conference, moderated by Gonzalo Sánchez, Director of Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, looked closely at the challenges facing a truth commission emerging from a peace process in a context like Colombia, where there is widespread and diverse social demand for truth. The discussion focused on the need for broad social participation and public dialogue if a truth-seeking experience is to be meaningful.

Marina Gallego, Director of Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, emphasized the important role played by civil society in the search for peace and truth. “Peace won’t be built by the government or the FARC. We need to overcome the war ourselves. So civil society needs to become more robust. Stronger.”

Victims’ groups and women’s groups have been at the forefront of the movement for truth in Colombia. And more and more truth commissions around the world have recognized the need for inclusivity in their work, with special attention to the participation of marginalized groups, such as women, children, and the Indigenous.

Gallego reflected on the unofficial truth commission her organization created in Colombia to investigate and analyze the experiences of women as direct victims of conflict, advocates for justice, and stakeholders in the peace process. Ruta Pacifica's many women activists have insisted that a peace process will not be complete without the voices of women.

Watch a video on women in Colombia organizing for truth here -

Truly the women's commission is an interesting example of a truth initiative led entirely by a civil society group to focus exclusively on the experiences of a single social group.

Gallego emphasized that with the women's commission there needed to be clarity from the outset about its purpose: “Most women were convinced that they were participating in the commission for the sake of the country, that they were doing it for the future.”

The commission also encouraged women to reflect on how they had been impacted by the conflict personally. “Women who testified did not just speak about their husbands or sons, but about how their daily lives were affected and how the conflict had torn at the fabric of the family.”

She continued, “Our report shows that during conflict women experience higher levels of violence, the same kinds of violence experienced in daily life but exacerbated. That is a very important finding in terms of ensuring non-repetition.”

An audience member asked Gallego, “Will the special recognition of women victims by the truth commission lead to compartmentalization of truths by social groups?” She answered, “No. We won’t have 20 different commissions, one for the Indigenous, one for the farmers, etc. No, what we are saying is that the commission should be designed to be inclusive, so that it is EVERYONE’s commission.”

The women’s stories of personal harm led to a discussion of issues of confidentiality and how a commission should handle sensitive information – in the short and long term – so as not to further victimize or endanger those who come forward to speak to a truth commission.

“There is a problem or risk of what will happen to the information after the truth commission finishes its work,” she explained.

Ronald Slye, Former Commissioner of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya, also underscored the need for a truth commission to be as inclusive as possible to be effective.

“I view truth as a public good. It’s something we as a pubic own but individuals hold. A truth commission can facilitate a public discussion about the different truths that exist in society.”

He emphasized that "victims are not the only ones who have truth; all stakeholders can contribute to it.”

In order to get higher rates of participation, Slye emphasized that “there’s a need for the truth commission to reach out and present an idea of a 'public conversation,' To say to the military or economic actors that there is a dialogue and that people will be talking about you, so you should be involved in order to have the opportunity to confront those truths.”

Like Marcie Mersky in the conference’s first panel, Slye stressed that the work of a truth commission in itself won’t end a conflict. “I think it’s very important that the victims who participate in a truth commission understand what the process is about - what it can do and cannot do.”

Slye also reflected on issues of trust, confidentiality, and security: “Kenya did not have a strong Witness Protection Program, so we had to be very careful about what kind of guarantees we offered to people. We did have in camera (or private) hearings that were only open to commissioners and staff. We also had informal conversations in which I spoke to victims directly because they trusted me.”

“There were also a number of people who were very high up in the government who knew we were investigating them or that we wanted to investigate them. So they threw a lot of roadblocks in front of us.”

He also expressed concern that he does not know what happened to the documents and archives of the Kenyan truth commission. “Presumably the government has them,” he said.

Priscilla Hayner, an independent consultant and writer, added to the consensus on the importance of active social forces in shaping a successful commission. She said, “Nobody says that any truth commission that has ever been created was perfect. But the strongest truth commissions have been those in countries where civil society has played a strong role."

She added, “That is why the work happening here – and by other groups in Colombia – is so important.”

She acknowledged, "It’s hard to play an active role while the negotiations are happening in Havana, and not here in your country. But it's critical for the different negotiating parties to know what different people and groups in Colombia want."

Hayner also reflected on the need to ensure confidentiality for those who come forward to speak with a truth commission: “I have been thinking a lot about these difficulties, of what will come after the commission, because I’ve been working on archives. For me, the solution is to think about it ahead of time and to include instructions in the mandate.”