Some victims find truth-telling to be traumatic
Truth commissions are an increasingly common tool used by countries attempting to come to terms with their past. There have been over 20 truth commissions in the past 20 years, although it is only in the last 10 years or so that they have started to gain significant recognition. Most notably, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work in 1995, and drew the eyes of the world to the opportunities and challenges associated with this method of inquiry.
Functions and Objectives of Truth Commissions
The specific functions of a truth commission vary, but generally speaking, truth commissions have two main roles. First, commissions set out to establish an official and accurate record of a country's past. This usually means the documentation of human rights abuses suffered during the mandated time frame to be examined by the commission. The socio-political contexts of the abuses are also often included. Second, commissions are charged with putting forth recommendations to government for reparations to victims, and for reforms to existing laws or institutional structures in an effort to prevent future abuses.
There is no set format for truth commissions. For example, commissions can conduct closed-door interviews, or public hearings to which all are invited to attend. They can take on a formal courtroom-like atmosphere, or a much more casual, informal tone resembling a roundtable discussion. They can accept the victim's story as the truth without requiring any corroborating evidence, or conduct in-depth investigations into each case brought before the commission. If amnesty is to be granted, it can be general, or conditional upon a number of factors. These are just a few of the matters that must be decided upon when designing a commission, and they serve to illustrate the flexible and accommodating, as well as the complex and undefined, nature of truth commissions.
There are many possible objectives in undertaking such an exercise. In Priscilla Hayner's Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity, the five objectives of truth commissions are laid out.1 Each commission might omit or emphasize particular objectives.
First, clarification and acknowledgment of the truth is perhaps the most obvious function of a commission. This can be the uncovering of new facts in a human rights abuse case, or simply the open acknowledgment of denied or hidden facts. Hayner distinguishes between knowledge of truths, and the benefits of official acknowledgment. She quotes Juan Mendez, a human rights lawyer, "Knowledge that is officially sanctioned, and thereby made 'part of the public cognitive scene' acquires a mysterious quality that is not there when it is merely 'truth.' Official acknowledgement at least begins to heal the wounds."
Responding to the needs of victims is a second aim of truth commissions. There are a number of ways in which commissions can do this. Hayner points out that truth commissions are different from trials in that they grant more attention and care to the victims. Victims have the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words, whether it be to a statement-taker, during a public hearing, or published in the report of the commission.
Victims can also be served through the reparation process. The commission may recommend that a victim be granted financial or practical assistance, or have a memorial or monument of some kind dedicated to him or her. The degree of benefit to individual victims has been questioned, since some victims find truth-telling to be a traumatic experience which brings up old memories and pain. Further, recommendations for reparations are just that: recommendations. All too often the recommendations are disregarded. Others, however, claim that truth commissions are healing for victims who can experience catharsis, feelings of support and acknowledgment from the public, and possibly even receive reparations.
Third, truth commissions aim to contribute to justice and accountability. They can pass on information to prosecutors after their investigations, if there is a competent judicial system functioning in the country. Sometimes the mere publishing of the perpetrators' names serves social justice, even when prosecution is not pursued. Recommendations from commissions can also contribute. For example, a commission may recommend the overhauling of an institution that would result in the removal of a certain individual from his or her position.
Another objective is the outlining of institutional responsibility. Hayner argues that commissions have a unique standpoint from which to evaluate weaknesses of certain institutions such as the judicial system, the police, and the military. During its truth-revealing and fact-finding, the commission gets an insider's view whilst maintaining its independent status, separate from the institution under review. Even if its recommendations are not immediately effected, Hayner argues they are still of value, in that they provide "a roadmap for change and creat[e] pressure points around which the civil society or the international community can push for reforms."
Finally, truth commissions aim to promote reconciliation and reduce tensions resulting from past violence. We can learn from the past to make a more secure future. Further, a hashing out of the truth can lead to an environment in which questions no longer linger in the shadows, and individuals and groups can then find themselves in a position to forgive. However, as Hayner points out, truth-telling and fact-finding also have risks and sometimes increase tensions. For example, if a commission is underway in a country with shaky political stability, or where some of the perpetrators are still in positions of power, truth-telling can inflame tensions rather than abate them.
Ghana is a West African country that has undergone a number of periods of unconstitutional rule since it gained independence from Britain in 1957. The perpetration of human rights abuses by people in authority during these periods has led to the formation of Ghana's National Reconciliation Commission (NRC). The abuses include such crimes as torture, killings, abductions, disappearances, detentions, and seizure of property.
The NRC is mandated to establish an accurate and complete historical record of abuses perpetrated against individuals by those purporting to have acted on behalf of the state during periods of unconstitutional rule. It is also to recommend redress and institutional reforms. This information will be included in the final NRC report.
The NRC began receiving statements of human rights violations from the public on September 2, 2002. Public hearings commenced on January 14, 2003. The commission sits for 12 months from the first hearing, with the possibility of a Presidential extension of six months, if good cause is shown. It is made up of nine members, as appointed by the president, in consultation with the Council of State. A series of committees have also been set up to examine such institutions and bodies as the legal profession, the press, the labour and student movements, and religious bodies and chiefs. The Committees will investigate any involvement these groups may have had in human rights violations during the mandated time frame, and will put recommend reforms.
The NRC conducts hearings and investigations into human rights violations, and the circumstances surrounding the abuses. It has the powers of the police in its investigations, and the powers of a court in its hearings. It may search, enter, and remove any property needed in its investigations, and also has the power to subpoena. This does not mean the NRC can arrest people or hand down sentences. It is strictly a fact-finding and recommendation-making body.
During the course of the investigations and hearings, witnesses may be called to give incriminating evidence against themselves. When witnesses comply with a request made by the NRC, any information they give cannot be used against themselves in the future.
Cases brought to hearing will be public, unless that is deemed inappropriate by the Commission. For example, a politically sensitive case might be held in camera as a precaution against political unrest. Alternately, victims who feels telling their story in public might put them at risk for retaliation can request a hearing behind closed doors.
The NRC hearings have a quasi-judicial tone. They are being held in Accra, the capital city, in a newly renovated room in the Old Parliament buildings. There is a bench behind which the nine commissioners sit and preside over the hearings. To their right sit the legal council for the commission, and to their left the counsel for the witness, if the witness requires legal representation. The witnesses themselves sit facing the commissioners, with microphones before them on the table. An interpreter sits beside any witness who wishes to speak in a local language. The proceedings are recorded in English. The Ghana Broadcasting Corporation broadcast all proceeding on live television. Journalists and the general public sit in balconies.
None of these characteristics are common to all truth commissions. There are no hard and fast rules governing the design of truth commissions.
The NRC has been called a partisan initiative by many observers who see it as an attempt by the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) to tarnish the image of its main opposition, the National Democratic Congress (NDC). Ghana returned to democratic rule in 1992 under Jerry Rawlings and the NDC. Generally, truth commissions are held during, or soon after, times of transition. In the Ghanaian case, the NRC is occurring over ten years later. Rawlings had been responsible for two coups in the past, and had ruled Ghana as a military leader prior to his installation as a democratic leader. He and the NDC remained in power until 2000, when John A Kufour and the NPP were voted in. It was only after the NPP came to power that the NRC was created to examine human rights abuses committed under past unconstitutional rulers, including Rawlings. Many point to this as evidence of the partisan nature of the NRC. They claim that the NPP seeks to damage the image of the NDC, their main political opponents, thus boosting their political power.
Other critics feel that within the Ghanaian context, a truth commission is simply inappropriate. They point to the truth commissions in South Africa and Sierra Leone, for example, after very different conflicts. South Africa's commission was a response to mass human rights abuses that occurred under apartheid, a state-sponsored system of racism leading to countless abuses against non-whites and opponents of apartheid. Apartheid was a part of everyone's life in South Africa. In Sierra Leone, civil war ripped apart the country and pitted groups against each other, rather than having a single nucleus of power committing abuses. Critics of the NRC do not deny that human rights abuses occurred under various regimes in Ghana, but they say they were much more isolated incidents than the ones in South Africa and Sierra Leone. They say the country did not undergo a widespread and penetrating conflict that calls for national reconciliation. Further, some argue that since the perpetrators are fewer and more identifiable than those in South Africa and Sierra Leone, a truth commission is inappropriate. They feel that a tribunal should be called to try each perpetrator on a case-by-case basis. Still others say we should "let sleeping dogs lie," and not stir up old memories, pain, and political tension when there is no assurance that the NRC will yield healing or reconciliation.
While all of these issues are still subjects of debate, the fact remains that the National Reconciliation Commission is well underway in Ghana. Based on the steady establishment of new truth commissions over the past two decades, it seems clear that truth commissions are here to stay. With that in mind, at the very least, the NRC can serve as an instructional example for the design of future commissions. At best, it will serve to promote individual healing, and the reconciliation of a nation.
1 Hayner Priscilla, Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (N.Y.: Routledge, 2001), pp. 24-31.