Lavinia Stan, “Truth Commissions,” available at:

Countries emerging from periods of widespread human rights violations can choose from a number of different judicial and non-judicial methods designed to help them to come to terms with their recent past. Truth commissions represent one such method that is non-judicial and restorative, rather than judicial and retributive, in nature. While the primary purpose of court trials is to do justice to victims and their relatives, of lustration is to renew the political elite and sideline politicians who could be blackmailed because of their tainted past, of restitution is to return property abusively confiscated to its initial owners, the primary goals of truth commissions are to help post-dictatorial societies reach the truth about past human rights abuses and to achieve reconciliation.

The first truth commission was set up, under considerable international pressure, in Uganda in 1974 by Idi Amin to investigate human rights violations perpetrated during the 1971-1973 period, when a large part of the Indian and Pakistani community was evicted from the country. Since then, more than 30 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America set up truth commissions. These countries were dictatorships (Uganda in 1974), emerging democracies (Argentina, Estonia, Liberia or South Africa) or consolidated democracies (Canada, and the United States). Some countries were republics (Chile, Lithuania, Germany, and Sri Lanka), while others were monarchies (Morocco). Some commissions were set up by elected Presidents (Sri Lanka, Argentina, Romania, and the Baltic states), governments, ministers or Prime Ministers (Chile), ruling monarchs (Morocco), parliaments (Germany), or political parties (such as the African National Congress in South Africa). Commissions were the result of international pressures (Uganda in 1974), domestic calls (Germany, Romania, Canada) or a combination of the two (those in the Baltic states). Some were staffed by nationals (Canada), internationals (El Salvador) or a combination of the two (Romania and the Baltic states). Some commissions studied entire decades-long political regimes (South Africa, Germany, Romania and the Baltic states), while others were mandated to analyze only human rights violations that occurred during a relatively short time span (Argentina, Uganda in 1974). Some commissions investigated almost all prevalent types of abuses (Argentina, Guatemala and South Africa), while others focused only on gross human rights violations (the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Some commissions were able to conclude their work with the release of a final report (the best known being the Argentinian Nunca Mas), while others were less successful (Fiji, Bolivia, Zimbabwe). Most countries have had only one truth commission, but Uganda set up two (in 1974 and again in 1986), while Sri Lanka had three regionally-based commissions that conducted their investigations simultaneously. Finally, some commissions will give no names of perpetrators (Guatemala), others will give all names (Romania), and still others will release a selection of names (Argentina). In a bold move, the cfinal report of the ommission of Chad included both the names and photographs of the perpetrators.

Not all governmental, parliamentary or presidential commissions can be considered truth commissions. According to Heyner, truth commissions are distinguished by four broad characteristics. They 1) focus on the past, 2) paint a broad picture of human rights violations of violations of international law that occurred over a defined period, 3) carry out their activity over a defined period of time, often – but not always – releasing a final report at the end of their mandate, and 4) gain access to information held by both the outgoing and the new government and enjoy the protection needed to dig into sensitive matters. By this definition, institutional arrangements that investigate ongoing atrocities, conflicts and wars; are organized on a permanent basis (as research institutes or centers); and discuss isolated individual cases of past human rights infringements do not represent truth commissions. There is some controversy in the literature with respect to the possibility for truth commissions to be established by non-governmental actors (political parties, civil society groups, etc.), since these commissions might not be able to fulfill condition no. 4, that is, to gain access to sensitive governmental data. Heyner recognizes the two inquiry commissions set up by the African National Congress as truth commissions, but other authors point out that the ANC was the political party forming the government at the time the commissions were formed and they enjoyed support from Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa. The number of civil society-based commissions is not large, but it could grow significantly if governments resist demands for truth. In Canada, for example, the civil society-based Truth Commission into Genocide led to the establishment of a government-backed commission in 2007, six full years after the release of its final report on the inhuman treatment of Aboriginal children in the Indial Residential School system.

Given the vast diversity of cases, there are no set criteria to evaluate the efficiency of truth commissions. Of course, these commissions will do more or less in a shorter or longer period of time depending on their original mandate, the degree of support they muster from victims and victimizers, government and the society at large, their organizational structure, as well as the tools they have at their disposal. Commitssions with only three months at their disposal will lack the ability to collect information from a variety of sources, while committees whose work extends for more than 4-5 years will be viewed as redundant and lacking in legitimacy. International commissions generally have impartiality, but lack legitimacy, whereas domestic commissions will always be suspected of promoting the position of the political actor who formed them. Commissions formed of politically independent members can have more legitimacy than commissions formed of representatives of political parties. Commissions with subpoena powers or the ability to grant amnesty can obtain testimonials from perpetrators that commissions deprived of such powers cannot.

Further readings:

Freemantle, T. Truth Commissions: Try to Put the Past to Rest, Houston Chronicle, 1996.
Heyner, P. Unspeakable Truths. London, Routledge, 2001.
Stan, L., ed., Transitional Justice in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: Reckoning with the Communist Past, Routledge, 2008.