Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Helena Meyer-Knapp
The Evergreen State College

Trauma and destruction are common results of war, religious conflict, gender oppression, and natural disaster. Unfortunately the way that societies deal with these issues can make a bad situation worse. Traditional systems of blame and punishment and even reparations all too often simply create additional harm.


In the 21st Century formal judicial systems centered on a national government and the courts are losing ground to new models of adjudication and problem-solving. Some communities are reverting to long-standing traditions for healing, cleansing and restoring community balance. Others are taking up a more modern idea, the creation of a Truth Commission to take testimony from the victims and perpetrators in a conflict. These bodies range in scope and scale from the famous South African hearings covering thousands of cases spanning thirty years, to the Greensboro NC (USA) hearings about a single local catastrophe. Commission hearing rooms offer a forum for contact across previously insurmountable barriers of hostility, which can inspire a traditional enemies to build a newly shared investment in the future.


Community organizations dealing with local traumatic events, families with a personal story of injustice, even an entity as large as the United States with its dark history of slavery can consider creating a Truth, Reconciliation and Amnesty Commission. A Commission holding hearings will allow the actual history to be revealed by taking testimony from a wide variety of perspectives, and will also become a forum in which adversaries can approach each other without insisting on punishment or revenge. Perhaps surprisingly, a narrative, anecdotal yet full recounting of painful truth contributes substantially to restoring the harmony and vitality of the community for the future.

South Africa’s is the most famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but there have been dozens of others.Many have played an important role in repairing community rifts without furthering the suffering for most people. In South Africa, an indigenously inspired and funded project, heard thousands of testimonies and disposed of over 3000 requests for amnesty. Guatemala’s TRC was more centralized and UN sponsored. A key outcome of the latter’s work came in an apology from the United States for its abusive interventions Guatemalan affairs.

TRCs offer a substitute for traditional disaster adjudication systems, which usually take one of the following three forms: insurance payments/liability law suits, government investigations/hearings, criminal trials and punishments. While each of these has its place, all three are concerned above all with blame for the past. Furthermore, legal and official procedures traditionally depend on arcane jargon and they tend to be expensive, long drawn out and highly centralized. Since they are dominated by experts, traditional dispute forums tend to marginalize the ordinary people who actually experience traumatic events. UN War Crimes Tribunals for Rwanda and Bosnia, which refuse to consider amnesty, have been bedeviled by the failings of court-based systems.

TRC style hearings are quite different. They are relatively informal so they are commensurately cheaper and can take place anywhere in an affected area. If they follow the South African model, hearings are not adversarial, they do not assign guilt or innocence and they are carried out in the local, natural language. In 2004 in Greensboro NC, hearings about 1979 slaughter of four civil rights activists offered an opportunity for people to continue on with a process that had actually been cut off in the courts.

TRC Commissioners need to attend openheartedly to the voices of suffering, to ask probing questions about responsibility and action so as to determine if the truth has indeed been told. Their success depends on the integrity of these commissioners. It also depends on careful recording and distribution of the testimonies. Participation, both for witnesses and those accused of doing harm has traditionally been voluntary, in the sense that no-one faces additional legal sanctions from their society for failing to appear, though community hostility can be hard on those who reject the Commission’s request to appear.

The strongest argument against TRC proceedings is precisely the strongest argument in favor of them – that such hearings are not the forum for punishing a perpetrator. Victim opponents of TRCs fear being deprived of justice. Perpetrators worry that the hearings are merely fishing expeditions to search out the guilty who will then be punished. Theorists are concerned that perpetrators who are not prosecuted under such a system will find they can act with impunity In South Africa some victims remained critical to the end, but many discovered that the new knowledge they gleaned at the hearings about what happened and why proved much stronger in easing their hearts than the had expected. And nothing about these hearings need prevent judicial action. Indeed in recent years there have been examples of re-opening judicial proceedings with a similar intent, for example the 2005 recreation and new “trial” of Chief Leshi leading his exoneration in Washington State, a hundred years after his execution.

Establishing a successful commission depends on preparing the groundwork on many issues. The factors identified by the Truth Commission Project (see below) include
# By whom/under whose name the commission is established
# When the commission is established and how far back it reaches
# Prevailing focus on healing or justice
# Public support for a truth commission
# Geographic horizon for Investigation
# Legal Powers of Investigation
# Rejecting anonymous and confidential testimonies
# Visibility of Hearings
# Degree of Formality of Hearings
# Whether or not to offer Amnesty
# Completion, Publication and Distribution/ Accessibilityof report

While most actual TRC hearings have been conducted in former war zones, it is easy to discern other issues which could benefit from this process:

1) The United States government and the American people could people re-examine the costs of the slave trade and the centuries of slave labor and yet minimize the likelihood that the acknowledgement of history becomes the basis furious revenge.
2) Or the people and the different levels of government could investigate the events of the New Orleans 2005 catastrophe without focusing narrowly on blame and thereby prompting an onslaught of liability law suits.
3) Or the residents and former residents of Hanford-Washington, Chernobyl-Ukraine, and Ukraine, and Bikini Island and other nuclear sites could craft public history out of the secrecy which surrounded the nuclear programs of the 20th century. At the same time they would create a forum for dialogue with the builders of the weapons and power plants who have left behind a radioactive legacy that will last for millennia.

This pattern links to Memory and Responsibility, Transparency, Community Inquiry, International Law


Therefore, faced with a festering historical trauma in a specific community, create a Truth, Reconciliation and Amnesty commission, using either informal or official channels. A commission can hear victim testimonies about past suffering as well as explanations from those responsible and it can provide a forum in which adversaries can meet without fear of further harm or punishment.

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