Last updated

Truth-seeking processes allow societies to examine and come to grips with past crimes and atrocities and prevent their future repetition. Truth-seeking often occurs in societies emerging from a period of prolonged conflict or authoritarian rule. [1] The most famous example to date is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although many other examples also exist. Most commonly these are carried out by official truth and reconciliation commissions as a form of restorative justice, but there are other mechanisms as well.


Through a truth-seeking process, actors in a country are able to investigate past abuses and seek redress for victims and their families. Such investigations go beyond simply identifying guilty parties or individuals, but may investigate root causes, patterns of suffering, and social impact as well as events in individual cases, such as disappearances.

By seeking to investigate such questions with a high degree of professionalism and commitment, truth-seeking processes seek to create long-lasting public impact, often through the publication of a public report. Such reporting helps expose the facts of violations and suffering, which are often otherwise denied, and minimize possibilities of revisionism in the future.

Given that truth-seeking requires both considerable time and resources to properly tackle investigations and victims’ needs, local community and regional representatives, civil society organizations, NGOs and aid agencies, and governmental and judicial entities play different roles in this process.

The Right to Truth

Many steps taken in a truth-seeking process are based on the premise of a right to truth. The right to truth entails that victims and communities affected by past crimes have the right to know the identity of suspected perpetrators consistent with the rights of the suspects. [2] According to the International Center for Transitional Justice: "Any person who has suffered atrocities has the unalienable right to know who is responsible; any family whose members have disappeared has the basic right discover their fate and whereabouts; every society where these crimes have taken place have the right to learn their history without lies or denial." [3]

The right to truth is an emerging principle in customary international law. It has been recognized in the United Nations Principles on Impunity [4] and subsequent UN materials, and the UN has declared March 24 to be the "International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims" in memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero. [5] The right to truth has also been proclaimed by regional bodies such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and in some national courts.

Truth-seeking Mechanisms

Frequently used tactics during truth-seeking include the protection of evidence, collection of extensive victim data and testimony, the opening and maintenance of state information and public archives, and the publication of comprehensive reports. [6] To implement such practices, truth commissions are often established to represent voices of victims. Such commissions are typically independent in nature and focus on accountability for past crimes, the root causes for the conflict and constructing historical narratives countering revisionism of the past. Policy recommendations issued by commissions often lead to a call for national reforms and further transitional justice initiatives, such as reparations, vetting and prosecutions.

Official truth commissions (often called truth and reconciliation commissions) have taken place in many countries, including South Africa, Peru, Timor-Leste, Liberia, the Solomon Islands, and South Korea. [7] Most recently truth commissions have begun to be implemented in developed countries such as Canada and Germany.

Unofficial or Local Truth-seeking

Unofficial or local truth-seeking projects became popular in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America, when community organizations such as churches and academic institutions documented human rights violations and issued reports following the end to military rule. Though unofficial, such efforts from civil society often serve to pave the way for or complement state- led transitional justice initiatives, and sometimes produce superior results, as in Guatemala. Unofficial truth-seeking initiatives have also taken place more recently at the local level in Northern Ireland, the United States, South Korea, and elsewhere. Calls for truth-seeking processes continue to be debated in other countries, such as Cambodia and Colombia.

See also

Related Research Articles

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa in 1996 after the end of apartheid. Authorised by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Desmond Tutu, the commission invited witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations to give statements about their experiences, and selected some for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

Truth commission Commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing

A truth commission, also known as a truth and reconciliation commission or truth and justice commission, is an official body tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government, in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past. Truth commissions are, under various names, occasionally set up by states emerging from periods of internal unrest, civil war, or dictatorship marked by human rights abuses. In both their truth-seeking and reconciling functions, truth commissions have political implications: they "constantly make choices when they define such basic objectives as truth, reconciliation, justice, memory, reparation, and recognition, and decide how these objectives should be met and whose needs should be served".

The Equity and Reconciliation Commission is a Moroccan human rights and truth commission created on January 7, 2004, when King Mohammed VI signed a Dahir. The commission was established to reconcile victims of human rights abuses, such as torture, forced disappearances and arbitrary arrests, committed by the government and high-ranking officials during the Years of Lead, with the State. The commission investigates events from 1956 to 1999, spanning the reign of the two previous monarchs. The proclaimed objectives of the commission were the protection and the promotion of the human rights in Morocco.

Transitional justice is a process which responds to massive human rights violations through judicial redress, political reforms in a region or country, and other measures in order to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuse. Transitional justice consists of judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses. Such measures "include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms". Transitional justice is instituted at a point of political transition classically from war to positive peace, or more broadly from violence and repression to societal stability and it is informed by a society’s desire to rebuild social trust, reestablish what is right from what is wrong, repair a fractured justice system, and build a democratic system of governance. The core value of transitional justice is the very notion of justice—which does not necessarily mean criminal justice. This notion and the political transformation, such as regime change or transition from conflict are thus linked to a more peaceful, certain, and democratic future.

Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor was an independent truth commission established in East Timor in 2001 under the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and charged to “inquire into human rights violations committed on all sides, between April 1974 and October 1999, and facilitate community reconciliation with justice for those who committed less serious offenses.” The idea of a truth commission in East Timor was first agreed by the National Council of Timorese Resistance in 2000.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Liberia)

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a Parliament-enacted organization created in May 2005 under the Transitional Government. The Commission worked throughout the first mandate of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf after her election as President of Liberia in November 2005. The Liberian TRC came to a conclusion in 2010, filing a final report and recommending relevant actions by national authorities to ensure responsibility and reparations.

Impunity means "exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines". In the international law of human rights, it refers to the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and, as such, itself constitutes a denial of the victims' right to justice and redress. Impunity is especially common in countries that lack a tradition of the rule of law, suffer from corruption or that have entrenched systems of patronage, or where the judiciary is weak or members of the security forces are protected by special jurisdictions or immunities. Impunity is sometimes considered a form of denialism of historical crimes.

An Amnesty law is any legislative, constitutional or executive arrangement that retroactively exempts a select group of people, usually military leaders and government leaders, from criminal liability for the crimes that they committed. More specifically, in the 'age of accountability', amnesty laws have come to be considered as granting impunity for the violation of human rights, including institutional measures that preclude the prosecution for such crimes and reprieve those crimes already convicted, avoiding any form of accountability.

Reparations are broadly understood as compensation given for an abuse or injury. The colloquial meaning of reparations has changed substantively over the last century. In the early 1900s, reparations were interstate exchanges that were punitive mechanisms determined by treaty and paid by the surrendering side of conflict, such as the World War I reparations paid by Germany and its allies. Reparations are now understood as not only war damages but also compensation and other measures provided to victims of severe human rights violations by the parties responsible. The right of the victim of an injury to receive reparations and the duty of the part responsible to provide them has been secured by the United Nations.

Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) is a non-governmental organisation with offices in Belgrade, Serbia, and Pristina, Kosovo. It was founded in 1992 by Nataša Kandić to document human rights violations across the former Yugoslavia in armed conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, later, Kosovo.

Memorialization generally refers to the process of preserving memories of people or events. It can be a form of address or petition, or a ceremony of remembrance or commemoration.

In Brazil, the National Truth Commission investigated human rights violations of the period of 1946–1988 - in particular by the authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from April 1, 1964 to March 15, 1985.

The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya (TJRC) was established in 2008. Kenya’s modern history has been marked not only by liberation struggles but also by ethnic conflicts, semi-despotic regimes, marginalization and political violence, including the coup d'état of 1982, the Shifta War, and the 2007 Post-election violence.

Memória Abierta is an alliance of Argentine human rights organizations that promotes the memory of recent human rights violations, actions of resistance and struggles for truth and justice. It contributes to the promotion of human rights and seeks to promote reflection on the present.

Colombia has been in the throes of civil unrest for over half a century. Between 1964 and now, 3 million persons have been displaced and about 220,000 have died, 4 out of 5 deaths were non-combatant civilians. Between left and right-winged armed forces, paramilitary and/or guerrilla, and an often corrupt government, it has been difficult for Colombia to set up any kind of truth or reconciliation commission. That is why the first on the scene, so to speak, were representatives of the UN. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been present in Colombia since 1997. Since 2006 though, there has been another international movement turning its attention to Colombia; namely the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). The works of both of these institutions have led to a few semi-official national committees to oversee truth seeking missions in the hopes of eventually achieving reparation. In 2012, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began their fourth attempt to negotiate an end to the fighting. Peace talks between the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, the main guerrilla force in the country, are currently underway in Havana, Cuba. The main issues are land redistribution, integration of the FARC into the political arena and an end to the powerful cocaine cartels. Though past attempts at peace talks have failed, negotiators in Havana, Cuba have gotten significantly further than ever before. Experts agree that it is not unreasonable to expect an accord by the end of 2014. In the words of President Santos: "Only in a Colombia without fear and with truth can we begin to turn the page."

The Commission of Inquiry to Locate the Persons Disappeared during the Panchayat Period (1990–1991) is a truth commission established in Nepal in 1990 after the end of the autocratic Panchayat Regime by the first post-Panchayat Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattharai. The commission was set up to examine allegations of human rights violations and inquire about enforced disappearances during the Panchayat system from 1961 to 1990. A report was officially submitted to the government in 1991, but it was made public only in 1994. The commission identified 35 persons disappeared on about one hundred studied cases. However, no alleged perpetrators were judged.

The Truth and Reconciliation process in Cambodia refers to efforts to create other truth-seeking and reconciliation mechanisms in the country, in addition to the hybrid tribunals established by the Cambodian government and the United Nations in 2001.

The Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a truth commission created as part of the Lomé Peace Accord, which ended the 11-year civil war conflict in Sierra Leone in July 1999.

Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a truth and reconciliation commission established by President Alejandro Toledo to investigate the human rights abuses committed during the internal conflict in Peru between 1980s and 1990s. The TRC was a response to the violent internal conflict between 1980 and 2000 during the administration of Presidents Fernando Belaúnde (1980–1985), Alan García (1985–1990), and Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000). The commission's mandate was to provide a record of human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed in Peru between May 1980 and November 2000, as well as recommend mechanisms to promote and strengthen human rights. The TRC reported on the estimated 70 000 deaths, assassinations, torture, disappearances, displacement, employment of terrorist methods and other human rights violations executed by the State, Shining Path, and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. The report concluded that there is both institutional and individual accountability, as well as identifying racial and cultural factors that became a catalyst for conflict.

Right to truth Right for victims to know what happened

Right to truth is the right, in the case of grave violations of human rights, for the victims and their families or societies to have access to the truth of what happened. The right to truth is closely related to, but distinct from, the state obligation to investigate and prosecute serious state violations of human rights. Right to truth is a form of victims' rights; it is especially relevant to transitional justice in dealing with past abuses of human rights. In 2006, Yasmin Naqvi concluded that the right to truth "stands somewhere on the threshold of a legal norm and a narrative device … somewhere above a good argument and somewhere below a clear legal rule".


  1. "Truth-seeking, Memory, and Memorials - ICTJ". 25 February 2011.
  2. "Ex-Combatants and Truth Commissions". 20 April 2011.
  3. "Right to the Truth". International Center for Transitional Justice. 14 March 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  4. "Equipo Nizkor - Updated Set of principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity".
  5. "International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims". United Nations. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  6. "Truth-seeking, Memory, and Memorials - ICTJ". 25 February 2011.
  7. "Latest Resources & Tools | United States Institute of Peace". Archived from the original on 2009-07-15.