Phases of truth and reconciliation

 The best truth commission reports are not simply historical texts, but road maps towards greater respect for human rights, and it is groups and advocates outside government who are sometimes best equipped to follow these road maps. In the words of Murray Sinclair, chief commissioner of the Canadian TRC: “As commissioners, we have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.” In response, Canadian ecumenical justice coalition KAIROS produced an educational resource booklet entitled Strength for Climbing: Steps on the Journey of Reconciliation.

This is the sort of responsive partnership work that has been carried out for some time by others in Canadian and international civil society. The Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, based in Victoria, British Columbia, has a long record of helping to build ties between First Nations communities on Vancouver Island and Indigenous Papuan communities. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace did extensive work in Indonesian-occupied East Timor on strengthening civil society.

Civil society’s role in truth and reconciliation is vital. It falls to non-governmental groups to disseminate truth commission reports, to bring them to wider audiences, and even to do much of the work of implementing their recommendations. Indonesian and Timorese activists call this “socialization” (to translate into somewhat awkward English the Indonesian-language term sosialisasi and the Tetun-language derivative sosialisasaun). Civil- society groups may be the key agents in bringing about change: both in terms of trying to implementing change after a truth commission delivers its report, and in trying to create truth and reconciliation processes where they do not, yet, exist. Commissions are often preceded by a popular struggle for justice in the face for past wrongs, a theme seen in Papuan campaigns to “set history straight” (pelurusan sejarah). They are as often followed by a popular struggle to see justice done, not just in the words of a commission report, but in the deeds of a society’s deeds in the report’s aftermath of that report.

This conclusion implies also that there are phases in truth and reconciliation processes: a “before” and an “after” that are as important as the phase of the truth commission itself. In her research on wars, political scientist Cynthia Enloe has argued that we should for the importance of seeing war as not simply as an event bounded by start and end dates, but as a process having “pre-war” and “post-war” phases. This framework can be applied to truth and reconciliation commissions, too. Truth commissions are a valuable tool, but they often lack follow-up mechanisms to implement their recommendations. The existing literature looks in detail at the operational phases of truth commissions. It is now starting to pay more attention to the campaigns to establish truth processes, and to efforts to implement truth commission recommendations, and to the role of activists and civil- society organizations in creating the context for truth commissions and pushing for follow-up action.

– excerpted from the introduction to Flowers in the Wall: Truth & Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia. Click here to access in open access full text.


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