Right to Information, or the Right to Truth

Integral to the truth and reconciliation philosophy is the notion of the right to information, or the right to the truth. Although not explicitly recognised in any of the major human rights declarations or treaties, the right to truth has been interpreted by activists and UN bodies as an essential element of the right to freedom of information as protected under Article(s) 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR. In 1993 the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression stated that Article 19 of the ICCPR imposes ‘a positive obligation on states to ensure access to information, particularly with regard to information held by government in all types of storage and retrieval systems’ (CHRI 2007: 31). The right has particular pertinence with regard to transitional justice, and the Human Rights Council have explicitly outlined a right to know the truth a nation’s violent history. A 2009 HRC document states that following ‘a period characterized by widespread or systematic human rights abuses [...] a person has a right to know the truth about what happened to him/her and that society as a whole has both a right to know and a responsibility to remember’ (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2009: 3). The right to information in a democratic society is portrayed as a doorway right, in that it enables the public to engage with official policy-making and participate in an open discussion about the protection of other rights and freedoms.

Global human rights jurisprudence has also contributed to a general acceptance of a right to truth within the international community. For example, in the 2012 Inter-American Court of Human Rights case Gudiel Alvarez et al. (Diario Militar) v. Guatemala, the court judged that the forced disappearances of 26 people during 1983-1985, and the Government’s subsequent failure to investigate, constituted a violation of the right to truth. Likewise, in the 2012 European Court of Human Rights case El-Masri v. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Macedonia’s inadequate investigation into the torture of a national in the United States was judged to have negatively impacted the public’s right to truth.

Olsen et al. have argued that truth commissions not only seek to uncover the truth about past abuses but, in doing so, claim to improve the future human rights situation in a country. “Such a goal”, they write, “is integral to truth commissions’ existence. The very process of uncovering the violent past aims to prevent its recurrence. The words ‘never again’, have become so integral to truth commissions” (2010: 458). But how might truth commissions achieve such a goal? Kim and Sikkink suggest that truth commissions achieve this outcome through normalising a human rights culture (Kim and Sikkink 2010). One could argue that truth commissions and their staff function as Merry’s ‘translators,’ bridging the gap between international and local vernaculars—they ‘legitimize the culture, beliefs and values associated with human rights as the new framework for imagining social relations’ (Gairdner 1999: 54).

I would like to suggest that truth commissions’ human rights benefits fall under two key categories—those that emanate from the final published report and its recommendations, and those connected with the process of truth telling and its proposed therapeutic benefits to victims of rights abuses. The first is linked to the right to truth as outlined above, as well as the series of human rights recommendations usually included within a TRC report. These might include budgeting towards improved service delivery such as health and education, infrastructure, or a list of international human rights treaties for the government to consider ratifying (see Solomon Island TRC Final Report 2012, Volume 3: 747)

With regard to the truth telling process, truth commissions are steeped in narratives of trauma healing—at both the individual and national levels. Truth telling, according to psychoanalytic models of trauma healing, is a cathartic process for both victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses. Herman describes this tradition as having its origin in the ‘talking cure’ developed by Freud to assist trauma victims in the 1890s. Memory—fractured and disconnected by traumatic events—must be reconstructed into a narrative just as the mind itself is reconstructed through the process of talking. She writes, ‘Breaking though the barriers of amnesia is not in fact the difficult part of reconstruction... The hard part of this task is to come face- to-face with the horrors on the other of the amnesiac barrier and to integrate these experiences into a fully developed life narrative’ (Herman 1997: 184).

And yet, without the correct support networks in place (counselling, medical care, etc.), there is a danger that speaking about violence may re-traumatise human rights victims, and this is especially true in contexts such as the Solomon Islands where the consequences of engaging in such speech acts must be weighed carefully in order to avoid stigma, shame, or the loss of social cohesion. The women’s submission to the Solomon Islands TRC Herem Kam: Stori Blong Mifala Olketa Mere, emphasises this when it says ‘Women generally have not shared their stories of the past— their suffering, their pain, their victimhood, and their survival. Cultural taboos around discussing sexual violence as well as cultural ramifications with sharing the truth often make women’s silence more palatable for them. For women, truth-telling, although very important, needs to be done sensitively’ (Herem Kam 2001: 1). A dilemma that transitional j ustice theorists have grappled with is whether the very act of attempting to communicate an individual’s story is an affront to their lived and unfathomable experience of pain. In Tessa Godwin Phelps’ book Shattered Voices: Language, Violence and the Work of Truth Commissions, she argues that in the dehumanisation process which takes place during physical violence, a person’s ability to communicate their experiences becomes one of the first causalities. ‘A primary attribute of pain,’ she states, ‘is its ultimate unsharability because it cannot accurately be represented in language. Eventually, physical pain can become so extreme that it ceases to be articulable even as metaphor’ (Godwin Phelps 2006: 9). Godwin Phelps believes therefore that the purpose of truth telling mechanisms must be to assist in the reconstruction of the shattered voices of victims, and to attempt to repiece that which has been disconnected, dislocated, and rendered meaningless. (Godwin Phelps 2006)

As the following section shall illustrate, the subjectivities of suffering promoted through the process of truth telling, and those represented within a final report, can often be at odds with each other. Whilst the process itself is more likely to resonate with local subjectivities of suffering, these are largely displaced by international legal subjectivities in the text of a report. Individuals’ personal experiences are squashed and moulded in order to fit into human rights categories that can be easily interrogated for patterns of abuse, and communicated meaningfully to an international audience.

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