The world has clearly registered its opinion about the desirability and effectiveness of truth commissions. From South Korea to Peru, truth commissions (and functionally equivalent institutions) have been established as a means of addressing historical injustices. (1) Indeed, out of the limited list of mechanisms for dealing with historical injustices and preparing a pathway toward a more secure and democratic future, truth commissions stand out as a very common choice of states haunted by their own histories. (2)
But are truth commissions effective? Of course, the first part of the answer to this question requires an answer to an earlier query: Effective at what? Can a truth commission create a democratic political system? Probably not. Can it erase a history of intense political conflict, bringing all sides together in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation? Surely not. But, to lower our expectations, can a truth commission contribute to a collective memory for a society, providing at least some common understanding of a country's conflictual past, including some appreciation of the motives of "the enemy"? Can a truth commission contribute to the development of a rule-of-law culture that respects human rights and thereby raises the costs of future efforts to violate the human rights of the citizenry? Can a truth commission advance political tolerance, a central component of a democratic political culture and a necessary ingredient for coexistence? The answers to these questions, while still subject to considerable disagreement and debate, are most likely that, under at least some conditions and to at least a limited degree, truth commissions can indeed contribute to societal transformation.
Indeed, rigorous empirical evidence on the effectiveness of the South African truth and reconciliation process supports this conclusion. (3) It appears that the South African process generated a truth about the past that is fairly widely accepted. It appears as well that those who buy into that truth tend to be more reconciled with the country's past, their fellow South Africans, and the political institutions of the country's new dispensation. And it seems that this reconciliation has been crucial in buying the South African transition some breathing space during which nascent democratic institutions and processes have been established and nurtured. The truth and reconciliation process in South Africa did not produce a secure, consolidated, democratic political system (in terms of either culture or institutions). But available evidence suggests that some portion of the South African "miracle" can reasonably be attributed to the success of the Commission's efforts to find truth and create reconciliation. (4)
At the same time, however, truth commissions often fail, even when expectations are minimal. Many commissions appear to have had little, if any, impact on societal transformations. Indeed, some view commissions as the product of social change rather than the cause of it. (5) Although it is certainly too soon to assess many of the ongoing efforts at truth and reconciliation throughout the world today, it would not be terribly surprising to find that truth commissions more often fail...
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