During the last 35 years, truth commissions have been widely embraced around the world as effective mechanisms for redress. From 1974 to 2007 over 30 commissions dedicated to truth and/or reconciliation were set up in Africa (South Africa, Uganda, Liberia, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Chad, Burundi, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone), Asia (Sri Lanka, Nepal, and South Korea), Central and Latin America (Haiti, Bolivia, Uruguay, El Salvador, Argentina, Guatemala, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru), and even Canada, to name just a few. Established in newer or older democracies by elected and non-elected heads of state, governments, national assemblies, political parties or the international community, truth commissions have been hailed for their potential to educate future generations and to provide truth, justice and reconciliation to deeply divided societies (Heyner, 2001).

Through public hearings that bring victims and perpetrators face to face, truth commissions can help post-authoritarian countries to engage in the moral catharsis needed to heal and reconcile their fractured societies. In the process, victims or their surviving relatives can get closure by finding the reasons why their families were targeted, while victimizers can be offered absolution and forgiveness in the form of amnesty and reintegration into the community. In this sense, truth commissions can help societies heal from the past, come to terms with unspeakable atrocities, debunk the “impermissible lies” (to use Michael Ignatieff’s words) that prevented them from overcoming extreme conflicts, find the resources to transcend group divisions, and foster the trust that can bring the community back together by protecting and promoting those inter-human relations that form the basis of social capital. By systematically searching for the truth in a relatively short timeframe, truth commissions attest to the commitment of the country’s new political leadership to resolutely break with its predecessor’s record of human rights abuses. By rewriting and reinterpreting the historical record, truth commissions educate future generations about the horrors of the recent past, ensure that such atrocities will not reoccur, and prevent denials of the occurrence of human rights abuses in the country. When their work aids in the implementation of other methods of transitional justice (such as the restitution of property, the allocation of compensation packages, the launching of court trials against decision makers of the ancien regime, etc.), truth commissions are capable to enlarge the scope of the politics of memory from uncovering the truth and rewriting history to obtaining justice and reparation.

Although in a “justice cascade” (Lutz and Sikkink, 2001) the international community has strongly advocated truth commissions as effective tools of almost universal relevance and applicability, some new democracies have been reluctant to embrace them, for a number of different reasons. First, it remains uncertain that commissions reconcile societies instead of dividing them, a possibility that becomes especially dangerous since new democracies are vulnerable to the limitations and constraints of painful political and economic transition. For some countries, the wild card of reckoning with the past through truth telling is accompanied by a risk factor too great to be worth assuming. This is why, for example, after emerging from General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Spain decided not to engage the past in a meaningful way (Aguilar, 2001). In its turn, post-communist Poland drew a “thick line” between the democratic present and the communist past (Stan, 2006), while post-communist Russia unexpectedly chose to praise its Soviet past as a time of international splendor and national harmony among its ethnic groups (Stan 2008). For how much time can the process of coming to terms with the past be put off remains a matter of debate, since none of these countries was able to stem out public debate on their recent past. Although assumed by only a handful of post-dictatorial states, the “forgive and forget” option suggests that transitional justice (the option to “prosecute and punish” through a range of methods, including truth commissions) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for successful democratization.

Second, when devoid of reconciliation purposes, commissions tend to closely parallel the work of the historians. Historians can produce impartial and comprehensive investigations, if they retain political independence and take time to document, to examine and to interpret the evidence. For sure, not all historians are devoid of political loyalties and not all of them can produce valuable scholarly interpretations. In new democracies, historians have to grapple with the legacies of the old authoritarian regime, which subjected them to systematic and sometimes prolonged indoctrination, asked them to view the country’s history through a predominantly political lens, scorned critical thinking and independence of mind, and deprived them of the international contacts that kept them abreast with the newest research methods (Maier, 2000).

By contrast, truth commissions are declared political tools producing political results at politically defined times. Beyond serving the “didactic purpose” of academic inquiry carried out by historians, truth commissions offer an official acknowledgement of regime abuses that “is an important step in breaking with the undemocratic patterns of the old order, which may have included cover-ups and misinformation” (Yoder, 1999, 60). The investigations into past atrocities carried out by truth commissions always have public significance and political urgency, but they are never comprehensive, transparent or totally impartial. Since new democracies allow historians to work freely and independently in environments untouched by significant censorship, where open discussion about what went wrong in the old regime is tolerated, it seems superfluous to create truth commissions to replicate work that would unfold naturally with time.

Third, when they primarily seek reconciliation, truth commissions are criticized for providing soft justice and partial truth, if they substitute themselves to court trials and refuse to list the names of the torturers in their final reports. To avoid social unrest, some truth commissions chose to disclose no names or only some names of perpetrators. Their defenders have argued that understanding the mechanism of repression is sufficient to prevent the reoccurrence of crimes, but their critics have pointed out that truth implies the disclosure of both the repressive institutions and the persons working in and for them. Truth has abstract (social) and personal dimensions of comparable importance. In the name of reconciliation and truth, some commissions have further opted to reward known torturers with amnesty. When seeing their chances to get justice in courts denied, the victims have denounced commissions as “farcical” “vehicles of political expedience” that rob them of the right to (court) justice (The Independent, 11 September 1997).

Fourth, truth commissions are expensive political tools, especially for new democracies facing severe economic constraints and a plethora of social demands. For this reason, in some cases the international community has provided most or part of the necessary funding (as in South Africa or El Salvador). Even when money was available, commissions found it difficult to adhere to strict budgets. As exploratory research tools, commissions can estimate the amount of work they need to undertake, but in the course of their activity might discover that the atrocities outnumber the initially anticipated crimes. Some commissions spread their resources thinly in an effort to find out as much as possible about as many cases as possible. Other commissions concentrate resources to look at smaller subsets of representative or extreme abuses and “gross” human rights violations (Brahm, 2007). Whatever the route they take, commissions need money to keep running. Their reliance on governmental funding makes them prone to political bias and obliges them to participate “in a struggle for access to scarce financial resources” (Ernst, 1995, 380) that they might not always win.

While popular around the world, truth commissions have been overlooked in post-communist Europe. After the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 in Eastern Europe and in 1991 in the Soviet Union, only five such commissions were created in Germany, Romania, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. None of these commissions became widely known in their respective countries, none was credited with bringing all the benefits of truth, justice, reconciliation and education to their societies, and none was regarded as a model worth inspiring neighboring countries.

What exactly accounts for the post-communist countries’ relative indifference to truth commissions? Why did only five countries see their potential benefits, and why did the region feel the need to devise new methods of reckoning with the past, such as lustration (the banning of communist decision-makers and secret agents from post-communist politics) and access to the secret files compiled by state security services? Why did these societies prefer legal administrative to truth-telling measures? Conversely, what can post-communist countries tell us about the efficacy of truth commissions in regions affected by widespread, but relatively mild, repression? These questions are answered first by looking at the five post-communist commissions constituted to date, then by examining the explanations proposed by different authors, and finally by suggesting, in the concluding section, a new mix of explanatory variables worth considering.

Truth commissions are defined as “official, temporary, non-judicial fact-finding bodies that investigate a pattern of abuses of human rights or humanitarian law, usually committed over a number of years” (Truth, Justice and Reparation 2007). They are bodies that 1) focus on the past; 2) investigate a pattern of abuses over a period of time, rather than a specific event; 3) are temporary bodies “typically in operation for six months to two years” and “completing their work with the submission of a report”; and 4) are “officially sanctioned, authorized, or empowered by the state” (Heyner, 2001, 14)1. They are, thus, temporary not permanent monitoring and enforcement bodies, mandated to gather and interpret information about past human rights violations, and meant to finalize their work with the release of a concluding report to either the general public or the body (political actor) that created them. They investigate patterns of human rights violations that occurred over several years, with only in exceptional cases that period of time being extended over several decades (as, for example, in the case of the South African Apartheid regime of 1949-1991 or the Indian Residential School system in Canada, which ran from the 1920s until 1997). Truth commissions are best suited for investigating relatively short periods of time that mark the beginning and the end of a specific historical event marred by unspeakable atrocities or widespread state abuse. Finally, truth commissions might seek reconciliation, but such a specific mandate is not always present. According to the above definition, a number of official, temporary, fact-finding bodies have been set up in Eastern Europe to examine human rights trespasses, but only five of them examined the abuses of the communist regime and completed their work with the publication of the results of their investigation.

For this reason, several commissions in Yugoslavia and Romania were not included in the present analysis. For example, in March 2001 a 15-member Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was set up by the Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. Appointed to a three-year period, the commission members were meant to address human rights violations of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, not those resulted from the previous decades of communist rule. As such, from the viewpoint of its mandate, if not of its organization and structure, the commission was similar to the parliamentary inquiry commissions created in the 1990s by the Romanian Parliament to investigate the involvement of the army, the militia and the secret state security forces in the anticommunist Revolution of December 1989.

From the start, observers were skeptical as to the Yugoslav commission’s ability to uncover the bloodshed and destruction caused by Serbian or Serbian-sponsored forces in the former Yugoslav federation (Pejic, 2001). The Yugoslav commission found the truth as illusory as its Romanian counterparts, whose reports were ignored by a general public convinced that the commissions had no commitment to ask the hard questions as long as important players dominated the post-communist political scene. Indeed, who shot at the revolutionaries after dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was no longer in power, who gave the orders for the massacre that left over 1,100 dead and some 3,350 wounded, and why exactly remain riddles that are yet to be solved (Ratesh, 1991; Hall, 2000 and 2002; Siani-Davies, 2006). The Yugoslav commission was marred by additional difficulties. Set up without public consultation on its mandate, structure and composition, it saw two of its members resigning soon after their appointment. As if this were not enough, its work paralleled the hearings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, a fact which threatened to make the commission redundant (Heyner, 2001). It is not surprising, thus, that in 2003 the commission faded away into insignificance without being able to achieve anything notable (Ilic, 2004).

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This article was published in The Open Political Science Journal (2009), 2, pp. 1-13, available at http://www.bentham.org/open/topolisj/openaccess2.htm.