Seeking the Truth After Peace: Opportunities, Challenges and Demands

The second panel of the Bogota conference, moderated by María Camila Moreno, director of ICTJ’s Colombia Office, focused on the opportunities, challenges and demands of seeking the truth after peace. Moreno framed the discussion around central themes, including the need to take advantage of existing momentum to create a truth commission and the need to establish the responsibilities of main actors, institutional or otherwise.

Christian Tomuschat, Former Chair of the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission, opened the session by sharing some of his personal experiences, both of leading the Guatemala truth commission and the transition in Germany after World War II.

“In Germany," he said, "similar question arose as to what to do with the people who were most responsible for atrocities. Some of these efforts were handled by the Allied Powers, which established a International Criminal Tribunal at Nuremberg to try those who had inflicted unbelievable suffering on the whole of Europe.”

He reminded conference participants that going from a national armed conflict with abuses to peace is not a routine matter: “Wounds were inflicted; many people are traumatized. Confidence in the government is lost. Measures are needed to overcome the frightening shadows of the past."

"In this regard," he said, "a truth commission can be extremely helpful.”

Tomuschat underscored that a truth commission is not a judicial process. In as much as it plays a role in finding out the responsibilities and failures of the state, it does not need to establish individual criminal responsibilities. But, as he explained, a judicial investigation can base its process on the work of a truth commission.

According to Tomuschat, there must be wide public participation for a truth commission to succeed. “Society must be associated and involved in the process, as soon as possible. The commission should not sit isolated somewhere and formulate its opinions based on individual conclusions. It must reflect what the public wants to see.”

Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence, placed the discussion of the truth commission in a broader framework of transitional justice. As he put it, “A conversation about truth is interlinked with a discussion of other types of rights.”

“What is encapsulated in the ridiculously long title that I hold," he said, "is an insistence on a mandate that includes those four elements: truth, justice, reparations, and non-recurrence. Part of my job is to ensure implementation of all four rights, and not just one of them.”

He underscored that the search for truth cannot be the only mechanism or national project pursued by a post-conflict society: “These four measures must be part of a larger social effort.”

“We have to remember that the truth is not the truth of one of the parties; or even about the behavior of the two parties. But it must be the truth about all of the agents of violence and it must analyze the different elements that led to the violence.”

He added that the process needs to make visible the victims – the marginalized – who would otherwise remain invisible and to raise awareness among people who were not directly affected by the conflict. He said, “If we see that, we know that discussions on transitional justice have been successful. Only then can the truth be more than mere words but the basis of real change.”

Jairo Estrada, Member of Colombia’s Historical Commission of the Conflict and Its Victims, acknowledged that there have already been other commissions and measures in Colombia to seek the truth. However, he stressed that "what makes this commission unique is that it is seen as an element in the resolution of the conflict in Colombia. It is part of a political decision by the parties to move forward. At other points in time in this country that was absolutely unthinkable.”

Looking at the possible scope of Colombia's future commission, Estrada recognized that there are discussions now in the country about pursuing a very partial or narrow project of truth seeking. He countered that a more comprehensive conception of truth includes building a concept of “political truth,” which would allow Colombians to understand why the violence took place.

He also stressed that “truth is not just judicial truth. Truth has many nuances. Therefore, the work of a truth commission is not just to take stock, but also to help ensure non-repetition of violations, in particular non-repetition of the conditions that gave rise to violations.”

Estrade questioned Colombia's political will to delve into the more difficult truths of the conflict: “I wonder if former presidents of the country would be willing to attend the summons of the truth commission; would other foreign powers, like the United States, be willing to come forward; different economic groups; and the media. Would they come forward to a truth commission to make a statement about their responsibilities?”

Wrapping up the session, Tomuschat stressed that if the findings of a truth commission are to be meaningful to people on the street, they must come with concrete results -- not just conceptual changes but material changes too.