Addressing past harms in postconflict societies
Transparency and accountability is further of key importance when addressing past harms in post-conflict countries. A number of post-conflict countries have embraced transitional justice instruments, such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) to address the past of human rights violations. TRCs are temporary institutions that are set up to investigate and document human rights abuses in a particular country (Brahm, 2007; Hayner, 2002). They are often sanctioned by national governments (Brahm, 2005). Post-conflict governments have to account for the past wrongs in order to forge a democratic future. Peterson (2005, p. 2) posited that “the purpose of a truth commission is to break through that wall of silence and restore knowledge of the hitherto hidden hands in history.” It is believed, that acknowledging the past, which in the case of TRCs has meant giving victims and perpetrators a platform to recount their war experiences, is supposed to bring about healing and reconciliation. Reconciliation is about mending broken relationships and the aim of TRCs is to prevent further violence and future human rights abuses (Hayner,
2002). Genuine reconciliation, however, builds on the truth and full disclosure which is achieved through the investigative work of the TRCs and which includes the documentation of the committed atrocities. Wilson (2004, p. 5) argued that “individuals, minorities and societies cannot achieve justice, validate their rights and carry through their efforts for reconciliation, unless the authoritative evidence of the violations which they have suffered is preserved and accessible.” The results of the TRC work is supposed to lead to the development of a new society that builds on democratic values which should include access to information.
Therefore, the documentation that TRCs create captures memories of societies, and it is a historical record of the committed atrocities. This history should be optimally used as post-conflict countries forge their future (Bakiner, 2014). Peterson identified three types of records that TRCs create and these include: administrative records, such as personnel records, program records which document the work of the commission, and investigative records on individuals or incidents. The investigative records may constitute: video clips, databases, audiotapes, digital as well as paper records, and photographs. Based on the accumulated documentation, TRCs come up with a final report which is supposed to be widely disseminated to the people but which rarely happens (Svard, 2007, 2009, 2013). TRCs do a commendable job and their rich documentation clarifies the relation between violations of civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights. Based on this rich documentation, they often come up with recommendations for institutional reforms that aim to create a legal, political, and cultural framework that builds on peace and democracy (Bakiner, 2014). Postconflict governments are expected to honor these recommendations but that is not often the case (Svard, 2010). The TRC documentation is meant to educate the citizens about the causes of the conflicts to avoid regression. TRCs that have taken place in countries with poor information management infrastructures have failed to effectively use this accumulated documentation for the benefit of the traumatized and impoverished people (Svard, 2009, 2010). This documentation can only be of value if it can be used in a manner that generates new knowledge and understanding. Knowledge about human rights abuses is important and the truth that TRCs establish has to be accessible to the public.
The Liberian TRC is a good example of what happens where there is lack of information planning and a well-developed information management infrastructure. The TRC collected over 22,000 written statements, several dozen personal interviews, and more than 500 live public testimonies of witnesses, including both perpetrators of atrocities and direct victims, in 15 counties and the Liberian Diaspora. This documentation constitutes records that need a secure and trustworthy custodianship, where access should be steered through fair rules to protect the privacy of the names of the people that are named in the archives (Peterson, 2005). These conditions were nonexistent and the controversies that the TRC report caused made the Liberian TRC to entrust all its documentation (archives) to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. This might have been an attempt to safeguard the archives since the commission recommended that the incumbent president of Liberia and some of the perpetrators of the conflict who are now in power should step down and leave government offices and politics. This is the first time in history a sovereign state handed over its entire TRC documentation to a foreign power (Svard, 2013). This documentation however belongs to the Liberian people and it is their intellectual property. Governments are responsible for the information that is generated as a result of their activities. Since the TRC was sanctioned by the Liberian government, it is its responsibility to safeguard the TRC archives, manage, preserve, and to make them accessible to the citizens and hence respect the victims’ right to know. The TRC archives are important for democracy building, transparency and accountability, reconciliation, research purposes, enhancing knowledge about conflicts and for posterity.
To enhance reconciliation, the causes of the conflict have to be addressed to enable people to engage in the reconstruction of their societies and to establish decent lives. The TRC archives carry the evidentiary value upon which the victims of oppression can base their claims for reparations and for all the Liberian citizens to demand the implementation of the TRC recommendations. Access to the TRC records in some countries is limited and yet it might be the only qualifier for reparations. Reparations are a central issue to the reconciliation process and a risk of not being paid out where there is no pressure exerted on the government by the public or civil society groups. As countries continue to embrace TRCs as mechanisms of transitional justice, the people whose atrocities they document continue to suffer since the TRC recommendations are not honored and the reparations are not paid out to all victims (Svard, 2010). The plight of the poor continues because change in their lives never takes place (Laplante & Theidon, 2007; Sesay, 2007). Populations emerging from experiences of repression have expectations such as justice for victims, accelerated economic recovery and development through the creation of inclusive and accountable institutions. Therefore, people need to know about the TRC findings in order to claim their rights. Reconciliation is a gradual process and for it to take place; the causes of the conflict have to be addressed.
Post-conflict countries such as Liberia lack access to technology and proper institutions to effectively use the generated information. In August, 2016, the author visited the Independent Human Rights Commission of Liberia that is supposed to further the work of the TRC and to see to it that the government honors and implements its recommendations. It was supposed to have taken over the TRC archives and to manage them. A conversation with one of the officers revealed that the Commission does not have access to the TRC archives. The Commission for obvious purposes needs a copy of these archives for its work. TRC archives form a collective memory, and are cultural heritage of the countries that use them as transitional justice mechanisms. The archives should be well maintained in order to preserve their integrity and authenticity especially now with the developing sphere of disinformation.
A well-functioning information management infrastructure should be put in place at the commencement of each TRC mission to effectively capture, manage, disseminate, and to preserve the TRC archives in a manner that would lead to their use. The preservation of the documentation on war atrocities has to be budgeted for during the early phases of the TRC work. Where there is danger for destruction, a copy of the archives should be secured and preserved at institutions that are considered safer, outside the country in question. It is of crucial importance that a copy of the archives is retained in the country for the legitimacy of the TRC process. The TRC archives are a collective memory and an information bank that should educate present and future generations about the causes of violence and thereby prevent a repetition of the same mistakes. They, therefore, enhance transparency and accountability should they be used intelligently. The TRC case demonstrates the importance of information management to the reconstruction of post-conflict societies and the promotion of transparency, accountability and sustainable development. Post-conflict governments account for human rights violations by sanctioning the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms such as TRCS.