Incomplete Truth, Incomplete Reconciliation: Towards a Scholarly Verdict on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Truth commissions have often been studied through the lens of the most famous commission, South Africa’s TRC, which formed after the end of apartheid in 1994. In this and other scholarly accounts, truth commissions are often found at best to be partially successful, and at worst fatally flawed.

Sarah Zwierzchowski’s chapter for Flowers in the Wall provides an overview of the academic literature on truth commissions, noting their basis in Western positivist notions about truth and the way they are often yoked to government aims. This is increasingly seen as a weakness. As Zwierzchowski writes:

Since their emergence as political and legal institutions in South America in the 1980s, truth and reconciliation commissions have become the dominant international paradigm for resolving tensions and preventing further atrocities in the aftermath of intrastate conflicts. These truth commissions generally operate on a purely Western understanding of objective truth and reconciliation as a means of securing political unity, overriding traditional and alternative reconciliation practices. In the same vein, the commissions conclude by producing a report that serves to present a uniform narrative of the past and a commitment to future co-operation that is presumed to be unanimous. While truth commissions are upheld at an international level, major critiques of these processes revolve around the strict forms and narratives inherent in them. Truth commissions have an undeniable value, but these critiques are valid and should be considered. Both truth and reconciliation can be sought and enacted in a variety of ways, taking many different forms, but existing examples have not adequately mined alternative solutions, nor have they addressed the potential and necessity for multiplicities of truths and reconciliations.

The scholarship shows that conceptual understandings of commissions depend on idealistic and politically impractical expectations. The case of the South African TRC demonstrates how scholars have struggled to reconcile their expectations with an often disappointing reality. Overwhelmingly, scholars looking at existing case studies have determined that all truth commissions fall short of completing or respecting their mandates; as a result, reconciliation is only ever partially achieved. The scholarship identifies several main reasons for this failure, including the interference of political factions, the uneven participation of religious institutions, the unclear definitions of the very concepts of truth and reconciliation found in TRC mandates, and the marginalization of particular victims and alternative reconciliation practices.

Though scholars have worked out a general framework for the goals, procedures, and expected outcomes of truth and reconciliation commissions, there has yet to be a practical example that meets these criteria and allows all victims to speak their piece and reconcile themselves with their perpetrators. Indeed, there is a risk that efforts to develop “best practices” can themselves end in the imposition of a single template on local communities. In the case of South Africa, a significant majority of scholars have identified various factors contributing to the shortcomings of the truth and reconciliation process. Political parties obstructed the work of the TRC through public attacks on its work and credibility. Religious institutions sought to dominate the language and hearings of the TRC and, as a result, were incapable of participating meaningfully in its proceedings. The mandate of the TRC included an unclear and contradictory understanding of the truth and reconciliation it sought, because its mandate was the result of negotiations between rival political parties, and so its work suffered. Finally, the perceived need for a unified procedure and narrative marginalized many victims who continue to seek alternative routes to reveal the truth and achieve reconciliation.

These problems are encountered by all truth commissions as they set out to accomplish a task that seems insurmountable. The various obstructions and issues that plague the commissions must be addressed to improve the process and outcomes. With mixed success, this is what truth commissions, from Timor-Leste to Canada, have attempted to do.

Click here to read the full chapter, “Incomplete Truth, Incomplete Reconciliation: Towards a Scholarly
Verdict on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions”