The Role of Truth in Peacebuilding: Complexities, Contributions and Myths

The first working session of the Bogota conference, moderated by Alejandro Santos, director of Revista Semana, focused on the role of truth seeking, and the potential future truth commission in the ongoing peace process in Colombia.

Sergio Jaramillo Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, opened the session by outlining the main elements of the peace process in Havana, which are based on reasonably shared understanding three main elements: of justice and victims, of demobilization and disarmament, and of the implementation what was agreed. He reminded the participants that the ongoing peace negotiations are not simply looking to reach agreement between two parties, but end decades of conflict and put a stop to the never-ending cycles of violence with transitional justice being at the heart of this effort.

“Peace must be fair, acknowledged and accepted by victims and society in general. Without this it won’t be legitimate and ultimately sustainable. Peace must be transformative; it must break cycles of violence and end the cycle of historic revenge. We cannot just turn the page, for then will keep the germ of revenge alive and this is why accountability is so important,” stressed Jaramillo.

“Truth is a necessary complement to justice, as evident by the example of Justice and Peace Process, which in time proved to have little effect on the society. Truth is needed by the entire society, but also for particular individuals, especially when it comes to the right to know what happened to the disappeared.”

In this context, Jaramillo reflected, the added value of a potential truth commission is societal participation, where victims will be able to participate in a dignified way, but also society at large, including the combatants. Combatants need to respond to victims and give their own version of what happened and how it happened, also in a dignified manner.”

Jaramillo particularly pointed to the importance of acknowledgement of crimes for the social transformation of a society like Colombia. “In Colombia we have much knowledge but little acknowledgement, and that is what is needed. If we acknowledge our own crimes and failings, we can ask for the same from others.”

Alan Doss, Executive Director, Kofi Annan Foundation, followed Jaramillo’s presentation by highliting the capacity of truth commissions to deal with deeply human aspects of conflict, residual emotions that make up legacy of violence such as anger and grief.

“Without dealing with these emotions it is nearly impossible to reach sustainable peace, as they fuel desire for revenge and cycles of violence, said Doss and added that “complement to truth is clarity, without clarity there is no truth. This is one of the key needs in post conflict societies, and truth commissions help bring this clarity and move forward.”

Marcie Mersky, Senior Staff, Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission and Director of Programs, ICTJ in her presentation tackled two significant myths about what truth commissions can achieve.

The first of such myths, in Mersky’s words, is that the work of TC necessarily leads to a consensus on history and to reconciliation.

“In countries with entrenched polarizations, it is very difficult to think that a truth commission can somehow miraculously bring consensus on the past. A truth commission will have its own version of consensus – that of commissioners. But, that does not mean that society will accept it,” said Mersky and pointed to examples of Guatemala, or USA and its struggle for a common narrative about the Civil War.

In Mersky’s opinion, reconciliation is even more complex as inter-personal reconciliation is often confused with societal, political or reconciliation between former warring parties.

“If a truth commission contributes to recognition of facts of suffering and responsibility, that is a step to reconciliation. If it contributes to re-evaluation of the value of live of victims, to de-stigmatization of human rights activists, of new values of political and social relationships, if it contributes to society’s outrage of unjust deed, then we can hope it will contribute to reconciliation,” said Mersky.

“But a truth commission’s ability to contribute to reconciliation depends on its legitimacy, on its ability to uncover policies and practices that lead to dehumanization of others. Those “unpleasant truths” that President Santos talked about this morning.”

Mersky also reflect on the second myth that accompanies the work of truith commissions: that they are exclusively exercises for the victims. “Truth commissions’ contribution will be incomplete if it is only for the victims. They need to play a central role, of course, and truth commissions trigger processes of rebuilding societal respect for victims, they make their dignity visible. But, if it is only for the victims many of TC’s contributions are lost. Truth commissions must engage all sectors of society, including elites that sometimes feels detached, to fully contribute they must should appeal and bring in powerful sectors and those indifferent, removed from the conflict.”

The last speaker in the session, Alvaro de Soto, Former Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in El Salvador, charted the way the truth commission in El Salvador materialized out of peace negotiations in which guerillas demanded accountability for leaders of the Army for atrocities committed during the civil war.

He proceeded to enumerate three key concepts that in his opinion underline potential societal contributions of truth commissions in the aftermath of conflict.

“A traumatized society has to go through a cathartic experience to be able to overcome it and leave the trauma behind. If truth is not sought, victims will demand it, and if this effort is postponed their children will demand it, which makes truth-seeking one of the priorities for a society recovering from massive violence. Giving a voice to the victims is important as multiple truths and views of the underlying causes of conflict exits.

This is why 'synthesis of the truth' that truth commissions can provide is so important,” said De Soto and concluded that “old conflicts that tear societies apart in the end have a background in the conflict of narrative of how they materialized. It is very difficult to reach a common narrative, but Colombia is facing this task as it tries to end the cycle of violence that has gone on for decades.”

A vigorous discussion with questions from the floor followed the session addressing, inter alia, the role of media in the debate on the past that would be catalyzed by a truth commission in Colombia, especially that of social media; the relationship between measures of accountability and a potential truth commission; the role of the ICC in the Colombian context; the place in the transitional justice process of former combatants; and the particular approaches to especially vulnerable groups like women and children. For a full recording of the session, please see the video recording which will be posted in due course on ICTJ’s website.