Truth and Consequences

Tepperman, Jonathan D.
March 2002
Foreign Affairs;Mar/Apr2002, Vol. 81 Issue 2, p128
More than 21 truth commissions have been established since 1972. Countries such as Yugoslavia, South Africa, Guatemala, Peru, Bosnia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone have all announced the creation of truth commissions to investigate past wrongdoings. Several prestigious American universities are offering academic courses on the subject. Despite their popularity, however, almost everything about the truth commissions is the subject of intense debate. And much of the criticism has come from the mainstream human rights community. Truth commissions face two basic types of problems: those that are avoidable and those that are inherent. The first relate to how commissions are established, conducted, and followed up. To minimize this problem, new commissions need to learn from the experiences that are occurring. The second type involve the tremendous difficulty in achieving, or even understanding, reconciliation. The most appropriate response to this type of problem is to appreciate the commission for what it can do. Two examples of successful commissions are South Africa's TRC and Guatemala's CEH. However, justice is difficult to obtain because human rights abuses trials of any kind remain elusive, and achieving accountability extremely difficult. Too often, the choice faced today is not between truth commissions and trials, but between truth commissions and nothing. But airing the truth can be a powerful remedy.


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