In Search
of the Truth

Creating an Effective Truth Commission

This multimedia presentation is based on the publication Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating an Effective Truth Commission.

Victims Have the Right
to Know the Truth

In the aftermath of conflict or repression, societies often face the reality that the ultimate fate of many victims remains unknown and that the circumstances surrounding their disappearance and suffering are only known to the authors of these crimes, who are often unwilling to reveal the truth. In these societies, truth-seeking initiatives can play a powerful role in documenting and acknowledging human rights violations, and affirming the right of victims and their families to know the truth.

Those seeking the truth about widespread abuses or crimes of mass atrocity confront particular challenges. Repressive regimes deliberately rewrite history and deny atrocities in order to legitimize themselves and avoid being held criminally responsible for serious crimes.

In countries like Argentina and Chile, the military dictatorships attempted to silence and control political opposition through criminal practices that were shrouded in secrecy. Individuals were snatched off the street, dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, or pulled from a protest crowd. Many were never seen or heard from again.

International law clearly recognizes the right of victims and survivors to know the truth about the circumstances of serious violations of human rights and who was responsible.

Why does the truth matter?

Establishing the truth about serious crimes can help communities to understand the causes of abuse and end them. Without accurate knowledge about past violations, it is difficult to prevent them from ever happening again.

The truth can support the healing process after traumatic events. It can also restore personal dignity, often after years of stigma, and safeguard against impunity for perpetrators or denial by the government or society at large. All cultures recognize the importance of mourning a loss in order to achieve personal and communal healing.

The Right to the Truth

Victims of gross human rights violations and their families have the right to know the truth about the abuses they have suffered.

The Right to the Truth has been recognized by the United Nations in the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (1992),the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation (2005), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006).

Knowing the truth
"to the fullest extent possible"
includes determining:

  • The identity of the perpetrators
  • The causes that led to abuse
  • The circumstances and facts of the violation
  • The ultimate fate and whereabouts of victims who were forcibly disappeared
Learn more about the Right to the Truth

How does transitional justice
establish the truth?

Truth-seeking contributes to the creation of a historical record that prevents manipulation of facts and information. It can help victims find closure by enabling them to learn more about the traumatic events that they suffered, such as the fate of disappeared loved ones, or why certain people and groups were targeted for abuse.

Truth-seeking initiatives take many forms—including freedom of information legislation, declassification of archives, and investigations into the missing and disappeared. Increasingly, countries have pursued truth through non judicial commissions of inquiry, including truth commissions.

What is a Truth

Truth commissions are temporary, official inquiries established to determine the facts, causes, and consequences of past human rights violations. By giving special attention to testimonies, they provide victims with recognition, often after many years of their voices being silenced or ignored.

Objectives of
a truth commission:

  • Establish the facts about violent events that remain disputed or denied
  • Protect, acknowledge, and empower victims and survivors
  • Inform policy, promote change in groups and institutions, and contribute to social and political transformation.

Truth commissions can

  • Contribute to prosecutions and reparations through their findings and recommendations
  • Assist divided societies in overcoming a culture of silence and distrust
  • Help identify needed institutional reforms to prevent new violations

A Controversial Concept

Many truth commissions aim to foster national reconciliation, with many incorporating the word "reconciliation" into their official name and mandate. However, commissions have understood this goal in different ways. Some have sought to heal the relationship between perpetrators and their communities; others have contributed to state and institutional reform in order to restore civic trust. Others have focused on the causes of conflict, providing compensation, and securing justice for victims.

Reconciliation should be understood as a long-term social process that cannot be achieved by a truth commission alone or within a limited timeframe. At best, a truth commission can help to create better conditions for reconciliation by fostering institutional reform, changes in the political culture of a state, and/or restoring the dignity of those who were affected by violence.

Learn more about truth commissions.

Legitimacy and

That a truth commission is seen as legitimate is essential to its work. Public confidence in a commission improves victims' and communities' willingness to participate in truth-seeking activities and share valuable information. A perception of legitimacy can also protect the commission from opponents invested in maintaining silence or denial about abuse.

Under ideal conditions, a commission's terms are developed through a consultative process that includes open discussions between government, civil society, victims' groups, and others who may be impacted by the commission's work.

Learn more about why it is important for a truth commission to be seen as legitimate and independent.

Conditions that ensure the independence of a commission:

  • A transparent process for appointing commissioners
  • Legal guarantees that commissioners can only be removed for a just reason
  • Protection of commissioners against threats or retaliation
  • Financial, administrative, and operational autonomy

Truth commissions are usually tasked with:

  • Preparing a report establishing an accurate and impartial historical record of human rights violations
  • Gathering information and testimonies
  • Protecting the integrity and wellbeing of victims
  • Conducting public outreach
  • Offering policy proposals to ensure violations are not repeated
  • Supporting the work of the justice system
  • Promoting communal or national reconciliation
The legal mandate sets the stage for a successful truth commission. Learn more.

A Critical Moment:
Setting Up
the Truth Commission

Building Momentum - Early Public Awareness

Before a commission begins its work, a range of media can be used to inform the public about the process and why it is important, and to help build momentum. Printed media can be distributed through outreach events, civil society networks, and local contacts. But radio, TV, press, songs, drama, and posters all have a role to play. Commissioners should also visit regions affected by violence, including outlying areas, in order to raise awareness about the commission and consult with important partners on issues of truth, accountability, and reconciliation.

Town hall-style meetings sometimes provide a forum for commissioners and staff to explain their activities to local communities and answer questions. Consultative meetings and training programs can be held with victims, ex-combatants, police, military, parliamentarians, religious leaders, teachers, women, children, youth, and others.

Exploring Local Customs

At an early stage, the commission should learn more how different groups who were affected by the violence are accustomed to dealing with serious violations, punishment, accountability, reconciliation, and other relevant issues, including their cultural use of ritual, storytelling, and other customs. This exploration should be carried out in a participatory manner that engages local communities and ensures their work respects the right of groups like indigenous peoples to be genuinely consulted on issues that affect them.

Read more about the early steps of setting up a truth commission.

From Establishment
to Regular Operations

Taking Statements

Collecting statements is the core activity of a truth commission, and the primary way it engages victims and witnesses. A "deponent," or someone who gives testimony by affidavit or deposition, must be able to tell their stories in a form that is culturally and psychologically meaningful to them and respects their narrative techniques.

Public hearings

Public hearings allow victims to share their experiences in front of a national audience and the media. Sometimes they are used as a vehicle for making public the testimony of special experts and important political figures.

Some commissions are authorized to allow perpetrators to participate in hearings, although this remains controversial. Critics cite the risk of further traumatizing victims or that some witnesses will take the opportunity to perform political grandstanding.

Learn more about the day-to-day operations of a truth commission.

Organizational Structure

In large measure, the success of a truth commission depends on its ability to manage its many tasks, divide responsibilities, decide on priorities, and encourage cooperation among commissioners and staff members.

The organizational structure of a commission needs to address a number of challenges:

  • The lines of reporting within the commission and the role of commissioners vis-à-vis staff
  • Territorial deployment, which will allow the commission to reach out more fully to victims and statement-givers
  • The use of specialized teams within the commission, identifying strengths, synergies, and potential forms of cooperation
  • The adequate and efficient use of resources
Learn more about the organizational structure of a truth commission

Public Outreach

To be successful, truth commissions must reach victims, witnesses, and other direct participants who are directly involved in the truth-seeking process, and the broader society. Public engagement is fundamental to achieving the goals of a commission.

A truth commission may define its outreach objectives as:

  • Sharing information
  • Creating dialogue
  • Consulting groups
  • Supporting the participation of victims and the public

Involving Civil Society

Nongovernmental and community-based organizations can be strong partners in the truth-seeking process. They have a number of valuable assets that they can share with a truth commission, including access to information, research skills, and the ability to identify key cases and situations for investigation.

Truth Commissions
and Diversity

A generic inquiry that does not account for the diverse experiences of a population cannot fully uncover or understand the abuses and violations that occurred. Neither can it appropriately recognize victims or make policy recommendations that will prevent abuses from happening again.

In recent years, truth commissions have made significant progress in integrating the unique perspective of women, who are often impacted by conflict and violence in a specific ways. Truth commissions are also doing more to ensure their work is sensitive to the needs of children and responds to the rights and cultural traditions of indigenous peoples. An inclusive approach involves these vulnerable groups, who are often sidelined during important discussions that directly affect them.

Creating a broadly inclusive process is critical to developing a rich understanding of abuses under inquiry, gaining wider support for the commission, and creating the right conditions for carrying out the commission's final recommendations.

The Final Report

The work of a Truth Commission normally culminates in the publication of a final report, which is an official written record of the commission's work and findings. For years to come, this document should be an important reference tool for scholars, policymakers, and historians.

Most of the final report will present the findings of the commission, its conclusions and descriptions of historical events. Another important element is the commission's policy recommendations.

Work doesn't end with a final report...

Issuing a final report should not mean the end of the commission's activities. A commission's legal mandate normally establishes what group or section will be responsible for sharing the report with the public and other important stakeholders. It will also indicate what group should taking charge of the commission's many tens of thousands of collected pages of materials. These archives are often maintained by a successor institution, usually in the form of a new office, in the model of the commission itself, or an existing institution capable of fulfilling this role, such as a historical archive or academic institution.

Issuing a final report is not the end of the truth-seeking process.

Learn more about what is needed to ensure the truth commission contributes to real social change.
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