simbolo-de-la-paz-formado-por.jpgExperiences with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions:

What is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? :

Truth Commissions have played an important role in some states in past years. A truth commission is commonly under the definition of “organization set up in order to investigate a past history of violations of human rights in a particular country … these violations can either be performed by the military or other government forces or armed resistance forces”. This is a wide definition by Haynes (1), which he brakes down into four main points to understand this commission and their role in a better way:
- First, as it was mentioned before these commissions are focused on past events.
- Second, a Truth Commission investigates more on a determined period of time other a specific event occurred in the past. Focusing on the type of human rights violation and the period of time assigned.
- Third, the Truth Commissions are a temporary body of investigation that is on duty for about six to two years period of time. Their task is to investigate during this time concluding with a report at the end.
- And lastly, these Commissions have total control of any information needed due to government empowering. Therefore, its findings are to be taken in serious consideration due to government sanctioning, which represents acknowledgment to past wrongdoings and a commitment to address the problem and continue on.

With the pursue of a transition to democracy, many countries have tried to achieve peace among the different groups existent in their backyard. In the 1970’s there were many nations that tried to switch into democracy with the purpose of having these already mentioned equality. In order to maintain discipline during this processes, in the 1990’s the international human rights organization established the truth commission with the peace ideal leading the decision.

Although most of the Commission around the world have used the word “truth” somehow included on their title, the diversity on the commissions are visible. As mentioned before they function in a sociopolitical environment supported by either the government or the popular level. This variety of settings brings about different results among the different Commissions. With an advanced investigation involved in the process a large amount of literature has been generated.

wiki.jpgThe “Justice” issue:

The main problem that the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have to cope with is the issue of justice and how it is treated during the investigation process. For must of us, cases of injustices, genocides and human rights violations should be judged by some sort of tribunal or international law. However, these Commissions can’t deliver the sense of justice like mentioned before; therefore the theme of justice is addressed from different point of views: “transitional justice”, “restorative justice” and “retroactive justice” which most of the case try to stay away from criminal verdicts. These alternative forms of true commission give the work of the commissions the meaning of morally politically and emotionally fraught range between “vengeance and forgiveness”. There is a great amount of tension present in the work done by the Commissions, mostly among the different poles present in this range. This tension is mainly related to the question of weather the definitions of “justice” and “Truth” are related inevitably or just contingently.

The “Truth” issue: wikiiiiiiiii.jpg

A perfect example to illustrate this issue is the period of time in which a dirty war is happening. Lerches (2000) argues that on his kind of wars every side has their own side of the story when it comes to how the events really developed. There is a proposal of different genres of truth: historical, moral, factual or forensic truth. “Forensic truth” for example, is one of the most reliable genres of truth; it bases its findings on material evidence allowing the real incident to flourish in its own ashes. However, there are also the people who lived the moment and participated or where victims of a particular event. These are a source of “personal” or “narrative” truth. Narrated events are a controversial source, since it the word of someone against a material evidence for example. Finally, issues with truth usually circles back to justice. Including punishment, combined with immunity from prosecution or with amnesty the wages of truth telling may become contested. But the job of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is to get to the bottom of any kind of violation occurred in the past of any country; even when they have to deal with all the different approaches that “Truth” can have.

The problem of Reconciliation:

It is important to consider that truth telling might lead to peace and forgiveness. For Montville, the process of reconciliation can be broken apart into acknowledging form the perpetrator and forgiveness from the victims. But the question is: is this reconciliation the same for particular individual than for a general crowd? Truth and Reconciliation commissions are responsible to make this happen in order to achieve peace. This being illustrated in the successful effect of the Commissions in countries transitioning for regimes based on violent oppression to those operating upon democratic rule of law.

The problem of Democracy:

As mentioned before Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are established by governments in transition. Once again the problem of justice comes to play an important role when dealing with the establishment of a democratic rule of law. Firstly, because without a punishment it is harder to bring bout a change or prevent military or security forces from happening again. Secondly, accountability is an essential prerequisite for a successful democratic transition. However, there are some issues when defining “accountability” in the fullest legal sense. The old elites of the repressive regime, political or military, tend to hold power in order to destabilize the new regimen.
The case of Chile is a classic example: how to obtain justice given the constraints of amnesty laws and presidential pardons? In fact, the record of truth commissions in Latin America shows that the military and the police apparatus survived the scrutiny with their legitimacy undermined but their power largely intact.

Truth Commission in Latin America

Background information.

During the late 1960s, with the help of the US government (operating under the Monroe doctrine) a strong military movement began in Latin America with the objective of eliminating the spread of Communism. This led to the overthrown of many democratic elected governments (Zagorski, 2005). The first couple of countries to fall under a military regime were Paraguay and Brazil in 1954, followed by Peru in 1964, Uruguay in 1968, Chile and Argentina in 1973, and ultimately Bolivia in 1974; while this was taking place in South America, Central American countries were in the middle of civil wars between their militaries and their people which later on led to the permanently take-over of the governments by the military in the 1980s (Logan, 2010). Most of the leaders that directed the coups and civil wars were former students of The School of the America, where they were trained in military tactics, torture techniques, guerrilla warfare, and other expertises. The tension between the military and the leftist groups grew, creating a hostile environment that later on led to violence and crimes committed between the two groups. In order to maintain control of their countries, military leaders organized and created programs to help them. One of the most famous program was called Operation Condor; here the leaders of the military intelligence services of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay met with Manuel Contreras (chief of the Chilean Secret police) in an effort to eliminate any
Peoplesaying "NO" to the continuation of the militaryregime inChile
Marxist movement left in the southern continent (Wiki 2010). Operation Condor, along with other military operations, led to violence and crimes, such as, disappearances, deaths, and violations of human rights of people believed to be directly involved in Communist movements. The people responsible for these crimes were never charge with any kind of violations and never faced any type of judgment by the judicial system during their regimes. Some of the most recognized and long lasting military regimes where the ones led by; Stroessner in Paraguay (1954-1991), General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in Chile (1973-1990), the trio of Videla, Viola, and Galtieri in Argentina (1976-1982), and the duo of Jorge Pacheco Areco and Jose Maria Boardaberry in Uruguay (1966-1985) (Cuya, 2010).
As people searched for justice and the truth they rose up against their governments leading once again to the spread of democracy throughout the continent.

The resurgence of democracy and creation of Truth Commissions

President elected, Raul Alfonsin, after end of militaryregime

In the late 1980s, due to increasing tension and pressure coming from the people, politics, and special events, for example the lost of the Malvinas/Falklands island war in Argentina (U.S.P.I 2010), one by one the military governments stepped aside an gave the power back to the people allowing democratic elections to take place. These new democracies faced a difficult task in regards on how to deal with the crimes committed prior to them taking control back of their countries, as Stephen A. Garret estates “situations in which a previously authoritarian regime has given way to a democratic one, and the new democracy is faced with the problem of how to address the human rights abuses of its predecessor” This paved the way to the creation of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. These commissions were set up in order to bring justice to those who were harmed by the regimes, and to put an end to the struggle between the people and the government. The first country to create a commission was Bolivia; they created the National Commission for Investigation for Forced Disappearances in October of 1982(U.S.I.P 2010). This encouraged other countries to follow Bolivia’s steps and countries such as Argentina and Uruguay both created their own assemblies the during 1983 and 1985 respectively. The first commission to have great success was the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador; the report contained the information about the disappearance, deaths and torture of about 22000 different cases that took place during the military regime. The commissions from Argentina and Chile were also very important programs for the international acknowledgment they received for their work done which helped validate the position of truth commission worldwide. Another case that is heading in the right direction is the example of Haiti’s commission. While they are still struggling to get the most of the perpetrators into trials, they did convict more than 50 soldiers, including the entire military high command that was responsible for the Raboteau massacre where almost 50 supporters of the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide also a former Roman Catholic priest, where beaten and murder.
Another great impact that the these committees have had on the families of the victims is that it has help them “clean” the names of their lost ones. The excuse the military used to torture and retain most of the victims was that they were “terrorist”, “communists”, or “rebels”. These labels not only increased the pain and suffering of their families that not only had lost their loved ones, but that also were associated with those so-called “terrorist” (Cuya 2010). In some cases, such as in Argentina, the families were provided with reparations for the illegal detention of the victims (U.S.I.P 2010).
Finally, another area that was greatly improved by the creation of these groups was the awareness that brought to the entire world about what had happened in Latin America, not only it putting the spot light on those incriminated with the crimes, but it also helped with the creation of many other organizations that will help prevent, or provide help to those who are facing similar discriminations today (Cuya 2001).

The Flaws of the Commissions

While we have seen many cases where the truth was revealed about what really happened in some countries during those harsh times, there has been a lack of action against those charged with those allegations. This is due to many reasons, the main one being that most of the people incriminated with the crimes are also under the protection of the amnesty that the previous military regime bestowed on them preventing the commission access to private information or to interrog
Bolivian dictator, and thenelected President. He was never chargewith any crimes.
ate any of the people responsible for some of the actions (Cuya 2001). In other cases, such as in Argentina, due to the fact that most of the people that were responsible for the crimes are still in power or are part of the political system. The families have fear of coming forward and because of this only 9000 confirmed cases of disappearances have been reported, whilst it is believed that the real number was between 10000 and 30000 (U.S.P.I 2010). Another problem that they face is the lack of support they have from their governments; because of this they tend to have difficulties to finance or properly execute their activities, this was particularly the case with the Bolivian commission that due to these problems had to be disbanded and no official report was ever released (U.S.P.I 2010). There have also been cases of people who took advantage of this situation to voluntarily exile themselves and pretend to be part of the group of people who had disappeared so their families could get the benefits and reparations that the government offered. There have been many confirmed cases of this happening in Chile, where people came back to the country after years of pretending to be dead without any valid reason (Leiva, 2008).

However, the biggest issue regarding the function of the commissions is that they have no legal power to prosecute any of the people that they found responsible for crimes committed during the period of time they investigated and in most cases due to political pressure or political influences, these people have never faced a jury. When this happens, the commission becomes a form for impunity for those charged with crimes and while it helps to get over the past, it does it without properly healing the wounds (Cuya, 2010).

Summary of commission in Latin America

Summary of commissions' report. Info gathered from


“Operation Condor.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Sat. 27 Mar. 2010.

Zagorski, Paul W. “The Military” Understanding Latin America. Ed. Richard S. Hillman.
US, 2005. 127-132 p.

Cuya, Esteban. “La Comision de la Verdad en America Latina.” Seria III Impunidad y
Verdad Sun. 28 Mar. 2010.

Cuya, Esteban. “El Impacto de las Comisiones de la Verdad en Latin America”
Ocb. 2001.

Leiva, Pablo. “’Detenido aparecido’ reitero su historia al ministro Gajardo.” La Nacion
November 20, 2008.

Brahm, Eric. “Truth Commissions” Knowledge base essay. June 2004.

United States Institute of Peace. Fri. 26, 2010.

Logan, Sam. “Truth commission in Latin America: An Analysis of Truth Commissions in
Argentina, Brazil and Chile.” Sat. 27 Mar. 2010.