Human Rights Scope of Truth Commissions

There are substantial variations in the scope and breadth of truth commissions’ investigations into past human rights violations. Some have limited their research to one or two categories of rights violations, such as the Argentinean National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons; others have focused on violations of bodily integrity rights aligning to the definition of crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute including instances of torture, slavery, rape, and killing. One criticism that has been levied against many truth commissions is their lack of willingness to engage with the economic, social, and cultural rights violations, or structural violence, which created the circumstances in which gross violations might occur (Mamdani 2002; Gready 2011; Wilson 2001). Although the scope to do this is inherent within the TRC approach, structural injustice has been largely ignored in favour of focusing on acts of physical violence. For example, the South African TRC investigated violations of bodily integrity rights under the apartheid system yet did not investigate the circumstances of apartheid itself in any great detail. Mamdani has criticised the South African TRC for dehistoriciz[ing] and decontextualiz[ing] the crimes of apartheid, claiming:

If the leadership of the TRC was eager to make the story of apartheid— especially the lessons of reconciliation—universally available, its ambitions were easy to reconcile with equally universalist aspirations of those in the human rights community who looked forward to framing the problem of apartheid as one of a violation of individual rights—albeit on a wide scale. Both shared the tendency to dehistoricise and decontextualise social processes, and to individualise their outcomes. (Mamdani 2002: 58)

This limits the scope of a commission to address the causes of a conflict or period of political repression and bring about effective societal change. It also limits the ability of truth commissions to resonate with cultures that place more value on community-orientated rather than individualist conceptions of rights. One great strength of the Solomon Islands TRC was its combined approach of a focus on violations of bodily integrity rights coupled with an investigation into the ‘root causes or antecedents’ of the 1998-2003 ethnic tensions. However, as I shall argue in the following section, it did not go far enough in bringing this historical context within the human rights framework.

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