Truth and Memory

Truth-seeking and truth-telling initiatives can play a powerful role in documenting and acknowledging human rights violations. Memory initiatives also contribute to the public understanding of past abuses. ICTJ’s truth and memory work seeks to advance the right to truth and provide support and advice to truth and memory initiatives worldwide.

A damaged black and white photo of a Cambodian woman.

“Transitional justice has different mechanisms. I kept encouraging different women to file, because when you have similar testimonies from different people in the same period, they support each other. It tells you that violations were systemic.”

— Najat, Tunisian woman who testified at the Truth and Dignity Commission

In the aftermath of a devastating conflict or repressive regime, knowing the truth about the past is more than just an important step toward justice; it is a recognized human right to which all victims and survivors of human rights violations are entitled. International law clearly recognizes the “right to know about the circumstances of serious violations of victims’ human rights and about who was responsible.”

It is especially important to uphold this right given that repressive regimes often deliberately rewrite history and deny atrocities in order to legitimize themselves, fuel mistrust, and even instigate new cycles of violence. Truth seeking contributes to the creation of a historical record that prevents this kind of manipulation. 

Effective truth seeking reinforces justice and can set in motion other forms of it. Truth-seeking measures can provide important and reliable information upon which to build victim registries and criminal cases. They also constitute an important platform for victims to voice their experiences and demands, which can inform the design and implementation of meaningful reparations and reforms. Truth seeking can help victims to find closure by revealing details such as the fate of forcibly disappeared loved ones or why certain people were targeted for abuse. 

Victims of human rights abuses cannot forget, and states have a duty to preserve the historical memory of periods of violence and repression. In this regard, architectural memorials, museums, and commemorative activities are indispensable educational initiatives that establish a public record and serve as a bastion against denial and recurrence. In many cases, civil society-led truth-seeking and commemoration activities have been the catalyst for states to assume their duties. Often, informal and arts-based forms of truth seeking and truth telling are the most effective way to reach wide audiences and begin the necessary cultural shifts toward a peaceful, inclusive future.

ICTJ’s Approach

ICTJ recognizes that truth seeking can take many forms, and we endeavor to assist a wide range of efforts at the local, national, and international levels. We offer direct support and advice wherever needed to help shed light on stories that may otherwise be silenced and uncover the underlying causes and the consequences of conflict and repression on victims’ lives. ICTJ offers context-specific technical advice to initiatives as diverse as official or civil society-led documentation projects; state-run truth commissions, commissions for the search of the disappeared, and commissions of inquiry; theater, film, and other arts-based projects; civil society-led public hearings; and other innovative efforts

At the national level, we both push governments and support them in their efforts to develop inclusive, context-specific mandates for truth commissions and similar entities. Once established, ICTJ supports the implementation of such processes by sharing relevant comparative experiences and offering advice on effective policies and procedures, organizational structures, outreach strategies, key areas of research, and holding successful public hearings, among other areas.

Similarly, we support civil society by facilitating platforms for direct engagement with state actors, while also offering technical assistance and advice on independent truth and memory initiatives. In some cases, these efforts seek to fill in gaps left behind by state-led processes; in others, they are catalysts, pushing for the truth that has not yet been told and telling victims’ stories when governments have not. 

At the international level, ICTJ continuously reflects on and consolidates lessons learned in order to offer clear policy guidance, develop practical resources, and lead other forms of public education and awareness-raising. ICTJ also assists fact-finding and other truth-seeking mechanisms led by the United Nations or other international stakeholders. 

Across all these levels and types of truth and memory work, ICTJ always promotes efforts that are responsive to the unique needs of different communities and groups based on factors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and geography.