Journal Article - Cooperation and Conflict

Measuring the Impacts of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Placing the Global 'Success' of TRCs in Local Perspective

| September 2012


Truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) have emerged as an international norm and are assumed to be an essential element of national reconciliation, democratization, and post-conflict development. Despite the increase in the number of TRCs being initiated around the globe and the international consensus regarding their positive effects, there is little understanding of the longterm effects and consequences of TRCs. Specifically, currently there are no established methods or mechanisms for measuring the impacts of TRCs; furthermore, the few examples of efforts to measure these impacts have serious limitations. This article explores both the rise in TRCs as an international norm and the contradictions and inadequacies in existing efforts to measure the impacts and successes of commissions. Through this examination, we aim to demonstrate the need for more critical, interactive, and inclusive mechanisms of assessment for understanding the effects of TRCs. The objective is neither to promote nor to criticize a specific TRC or TRCs in general; however, this article emphasizes the need to think rigorously about how we assess the effects of TRCs and offers insights into the value of more comprehensive mechanisms for assessing the impacts and local perceptions of commissions.

Over the last decade, many truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) have been initiated in countries emerging out of conflicts or political turmoil across the globe. Truth commissions are truth-seeking bodies set up to investigate past records of human rights violations. The underlying assumption is that the investigative process itself and the resulting historical narrative will lead to justice and reconciliation (Hayner, 2002). In general, in both policy and academic literature, TRCs are associated with several goals and expected outcomes, including healing, justice and peace-building. Among its goals, a truth commission purports to offer victims, witnesses, and perpetrators a setting to tell their stories, thereby creating a historical, and often public, record of past human rights violations (Von Zyl, 2000). Unlike legal records, the narrative produced by truth commissions does not abide by rules of criminal evidence collection, which allows for a broader perspective on the pattern and causes of violence. The unifying national historical narrative is supposedly a crucial first step in nation-building (Christie, 2000: 117). In addition, the commission's hearings, as well as the final report, if it is a public one, serve as an official acknowledgment of the victims' suffering and loss. This public acknowledgment is meant to have a therapeutic effect by providing closure and healing for individual victims as well as for society as a whole.

Above all, truth commissions are associated with multiple democratizing effects, which lead to the view that truth commissions are essential for democratization processes. The process of establishing and executing truth commissions is meant to signal a clear break from the practices of the former regime and the new regime's commitment to the rule of law, thereby promoting the legitimacy and accountability of the new regime. In addition, truth commissions make recommendations for political, judicial, and educational reforms that are intended to set the new transitioning state on a better path toward a stable and properly functioning democracy.

Beyond their multiple positive effects associated with the democratization process, truth commissions have been closely tied to the concept of reconciliation. Although the relationship between truth-seeking and peace was not new,1 it regained interest following the South African post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process. One of the legacies of the South African truth commission is the emerging consensus about the nexus between truth and reconciliation (Moon, 2008)....

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1The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1992) was the first truth commission to emerge out of a negotiated peace accord brokered by the United Nations. Two years later, the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission (1994) was established under similar circumstances. In these two commissions, however, the scope and the stated goals of the truth-seeking process were defined rather narrowly: a fact-finding process aimed at the disclosure of previously unknown or suppressed information. Reconciliation was by no means a main goal of these commissions as reflected by their mandate and reporting.

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For Academic Citation: Ben-Josef Hirsch, Michal, Megan Mackenzie, and Mohamed Sesay. Measuring the Impacts of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Placing the Global 'Success' of TRCs in Local Perspective.” Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 47. no. 3. (September 2012):

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