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What are truth commissions

what are truth commissions

Many Timorese want answers from those who caused their loss and suffering. With answers, people can start the healing process and close this horrible chapter in their lives. -- Xanana Gusmao

And the truth will set you free.

Since the mid-1970s, an unprecedented number of states have attempted the transition to democracy. One of the significant issues many of these states have had to deal with is how to induce different groups to peacefully coexist after years of conflict. Particularly since the early 1990s, the international human rights community has advocated truth commissions as an important part of the healing process. and they have been suggested as part of the peace process of virtually every international or communal conflict that has come to an end since.

Advocates of truth commissions (as well as other forms of transitional justice such as war crimes tribunals ) argue that some reckoning with the past is necessary in order for former opponents to look to a peaceful shared future. This essay will discuss the evolving practice of truth commissions and explore claims made on their behalf. They are increasingly seen not as weak substitutes for trials, but as having unique benefits and as superior to trials in some respects.

Truth commissions are generally understood to be "bodies set up to investigate a past history of violations of human rights in a particular country -- which can include violations by the military or other government forces

or armed opposition forces."[1] Hayner delineates four main characteristics of truth commissions. [2]

  • First, they focus on the past. The events may have occurred in the recent past, but a truth commission is not an ongoing body akin to a human rights commission.
  • Second, truth commissions investigate a pattern of abuse over a set period of time rather than a specific event. In its mandate, the truth commission is given the parameters of its investigation both in terms of the time period covered as well as the type of human rights violations to be explored.
  • Third, a truth commission is a temporary body, usually operating over a period of six months to two years and completing its work by submitting a report. These parameters are established at the time of the commission's formation, but often an extension can be obtained to wrap things up.
  • Fourth, truth commissions are officially sanctioned, authorized, or empowered by the state. This, in principle, allows the commission to have greater access to information, greater security, and increased assurance that its findings will be taken under serious consideration. Official sanction from the government is crucial because it represents an acknowledgment of past wrongs and a commitment to address the issues and move on. Furthermore, governments may be more likely to enact recommended reforms if they have established the commission. The table below provides a brief summary of truth commissions created through early 2004.

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