Truth Commissions and Indigenous Rights: What is at Stake?

Truth Commissions and Indigenous Rights: What is at Stake?

The conference on Strengthening Indigenous Rights through Truth Commissions took place last week. Eduardo Gonzalez and Joanna Rice of ICTJ’s Truth and Memory Program discussed the possibilities and limitations of utilizing truth commissions to strengthen and support the rights of indigenous peoples.

In ensuring the focus of mechanisms to address human rights violations encompasses historic structural abuses, truth commissions can complement efforts to define and implement indigenous rights.

The truth commission model is traditionally conceived as addressing the most serious human rights violations by the state or armed opponents in a transition from conflict or authoritarianism. But drawing from the Canadian experience addressing the legacies of the Indian Residential School system, we’ve seen that a truth-seeking project can also be an initiative of the survivors themselves engaging the state directly. The Canada TRC experience shows that a truth commission that incorporates indigenous languages and acknowledges cultural practices—such as oral history—into its proceedings will afford a richer and more complete reconstruction of the past.

Indigenous Rights & Truth-Seeking in Early Colonization Regions

The second session expanded on the discussion of truth-seeking and indigenous rights, focusing on the experiences of Peru, Guatemala, and Chile. Speaker Alvaro Esteban Pop of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues framed the session with an analysis of the shortcomings of transitional justice work in Guatemala. Armed conflict between 1960 and 1996 often targeted the indigenous Mayan population. Despite movements to open military archives, commemorate victims, and reform the constitution, Pop said, current measures have been insufficient to acknowledge and address the collective trauma experienced within the Mayan community.

Leslie Villapolo of the Centre for Practical Anthropology (CAAAP) used the case study of Peru to illustrate the successes and failures of truth commissions addressing indigenous rights issues. Peru’s truth commission did not provide enough inclusive space for intercultural dialogue between the state and indigenous Amazonian populations, she said. The TRC process did not occur at the moment when indigenous communities felt prepared for it. Currently, indigenous communities fear the re-emergence of violence around conflict generated by access to natural resources.

ICTJ Senior Program Advisor Marcie Mersky expanded on the case of Guatemala, noting that this case poses a challenge to the way we think about applying transitional justice mechanisms. Although many mechanisms—including truth-seeking initiatives—have been employed in Guatemala and attempted to address the effects of violence on indigenous communities, none had mandates with a specific focus on indigenous peoples.

The discussion also addressed questions about the design of truth commissions, including the issues that arise when truth commissions are established without indigenous ownership and tensions between the urgency of truth-seeking and the time needed to establish a comprehensive and integrated truth. Milosz Kusz of ICTJ Colombia echoed the concern that truth commissions typically lack a specific mandate to address the impact a conflict has had on the effective enjoyment of rights by indigenous peoples.

Truth Commissions as a New Approach to Seeking Justice in Settler Societies

The third session shifted focus to truth commissions in “settler societies,” including Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Marie Wilson, one of three commissioners on Canada’s ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), spoke about the process of creating a truth commission in a country where indigenous population is a minority and where a democratic political system exists. In contrast to post-conflict or post-authoritarian truth and memory initiatives, Canada’s experience has been able to leverage established democratic institutions like national courts to confront the endemic violation of indigenous rights and subsequent denial; even though marginalization is still deeply entrenched.

Both Andrew Erueti of Amnesty International New Zealand and Claire Charters of the UN Expert Mechanism on Indigenous Issues discussed how the obstacles faced by indigenous movements in New Zealand and Australia reflect the overarching questions about truth commissions and their role. Defining indigenous peoples is difficult because many countries resist that the indigenous concept is applicable within their borders; the unclear criteria for identifying the indigenous condition favors groups able to organize in the traditional tribal model.

In Maine, the developing truth commission on child welfare faces similar questions of how to involve both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in a collaborative space for truth-seeking. Esther Attean of the Inter-Tribal Truth Commission spoke about the need to arrive at a common understanding through open, honest conversation about oppression. In addressing human rights violations against indigenous populations by Maine’s welfare state, indigenous ownership of the truth-seeking process and efforts to educate the non-indigenous population are both crucial to the commission’s work.

ICTJ Program Office Director Lisa Magarrell concluded by discussing the need to identify what tools available in a democratic system can provide openings for truth and justice, in particular when considering long-term systemic rights abuses instead of the more defined abuses of an armed conflict or authoritarian regime. Even when there is not a dramatic shift in political context, there can be opportunities to break down denial and myth in favor of an inclusive, dialogic truth.

Indigenous Rights and Truth Seeking in the Face of Post-Colonial Nation-Building

The final session of the first day focused on how truth seeking mechanisms addressed indigenous rights in historically recent post-colonial nation building, particularly in Asia and Africa. In his introduction, George Mukundi of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CVSR) outlined the main issues affecting the struggle to remedy injustices against indigenous groups in post-colonial societies. These include: issues of citizenship and identity; how far back investigations should go; how to integrate social and economic rights into mandates of truth commissions; cross border existence of indigenous groups; and the role of international actors and corporations.

The panelists spoke about specific situations in Burma, Nepal, and Kenya. Patrick Pierce, head of ICTJ’s Burma program, provided a historical overview of the conflict in Burma and the ongoing documentation efforts, which may in the future form the basis for truth-seeking efforts. He underlined the importance of including the narratives of both resistance and victimhood that are being documented by the local human rights and indigenous groups.

Sangeeta Lama from the National Indigenous Women’s Federation of Nepal described the situation facing the indigenous peoples in Nepal, who make up some 38 percent of the population. A truth commission has been on the national agenda in Nepal since 2001. However, the draft law presented in 2010 is now bogged down in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Nepalese legislature. Indigenous groups claim they have not been consulted about the bill; civil society has largely lost interest in the issue.

Njonjo Mue, deputy director of ICTJ’s Africa program, spoke of the proliferation of truth commissions in Africa, which can seen positively but also cynically as an attempt of countries to “tick the box” of looking into the past abuses. He described the example of Kenya, where perceived elitism and the issues of credibility led to loss of support in the natural constituencies of the commission. However, when the TRC started conducted hearings, long-marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples saw the mechanisms as a chance to finally have their grievances heard and victims engaged.