Truth (and Reconciliation) Commissions and Human Rights

In many ways, truth and reconciliation commissions are the hallmark of transitional justice: Geoffrey Robertson, for example, considers TRCs and transitional justice as entirely separate from the punitive strategies of international criminal law (Robertson 2000). The first transitional justice truth commissions were established in 1983 Argentina (The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons), and 1990 Chile (The National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation).1 Both countries were new democracies coming to terms with pasts characterised by systematic repression, torture, and killings of political dissidents, including the ‘forced disappearances’ made infamous by the Argentinean military junta. Naomi Roht-Arriaza argues that the expansion of transitional justice goals at this time was due to broader consultation with victims of rights violations. Not just lawyers, but victims’ groups and individuals with ethical, moral, and theological expertise contributed to this development (Roht- Arriaza 2013a: 389).

In these unique environments in which the recent past had been characterised by blanket silencing of information about human rights violations, truth for its own sake became a pressing justice goal. In order for newly democratic governments to start afresh upon a platform of transparency and respect for human rights norms, it was necessary to unearth the information that had been hidden from public view, and provide victims and their families with some form of official acknowledgement of what they had suffered. Unlike criminal trials, truth commissions’ approach to dealing with a former regime’s poor human rights record was significantly more complex than identifying and prosecuting a handful of key perpetrators. Whilst truth commissions continued to utilise the same international legal frameworks to define incidents of violence (violations of human rights and humanitarian law), the remedies they proposed were inspired by the theological and localised conceptions of suffering and healing that they were now layered with: forgiveness, amnesties, and the promotion of national unity and interpersonal reconciliation. It could be argued that this more holistic interpretation of rights marked a return to the philosophical origins of the concept—to the time before human rights were codified and thus limited through international law. Whilst this may be true (and there is certainly a lot of scope for promoting rights outside of a legal framework in countries with weak or fledgling legal systems), the layering of conceptual frameworks of suffering presents some possible internal contradictions. Sally Engle Merry has described the process of ‘vernacularisation,’ by which the global discourse of human rights gets taken on by grassroots actors. Merry describes a ‘layering’ of subjectivities that occurs when a human rights framework is adopted (Merry 2009: 219), and as I will argue in section two, this layering, and a lack of clarity about the limitations of, and potential clashes between such frameworks, led to some of the administrative and conceptual problems experienced by the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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