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Truth and Consequences

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NEW YORK – The recent re-election of Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, brings hope to a country seeking to end a half-century of conflict. But, as with so many peace processes, finding a balance between creating a stable accord and acknowledging the terrible injustices that occurred during the conflict can be difficult to achieve.

Many countries and communities, from Nepal to Northern Ireland, have grappled with legacies of ethnic, ideological, or religious division and violence, often with limited success. This is frequently the case because the mechanisms established to cope with post-conflict reconciliation, truth, and justice, have proved inadequate.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has made important contributions to truth seeking. But victims complain that its procedures are slow and abstruse; and many Bosnian Serbs are convinced that the tribunal is selective and politically motivated.

An agreement between Nepal’s government and Maoist guerrillas to establish a truth commission and investigate the “disappeared” was delayed for seven years. When legislators finally enacted the enabling legislation in May 2013, victims were dismayed to discover that the commission would be allowed to recommend amnesties for crimes against humanity, in contravention of international principles and United Nations guidelines.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, justly acclaimed for staunching the bloodshed and starting reconciliation, has – to the great frustration of victims – run into political resistance over one integral element of the peace process: the establishment of mechanisms to clarify past crimes.

Peace negotiators understandably fear that criminal accountability for past crimes will threaten their side’s leaders and supporters. Many have wrongly assumed – based on a misinterpretation of the South African experience – that truth commissions provide a “soft” alternative to justice. As a result, they have willingly incorporated these mechanisms into peace agreements (conveniently ignoring the fact that the victims are forced to choose between seeking justice and learning the truth).

Predictably, as truth commissions have become established components of transitional justice, former fighters have become increasingly worried that their reputations and political credibility could be on the line should past crimes ever come to light. Seeking the truth can be unsettling and painful for anyone, but it comes with serious consequences for those with reason to fear justice.

Indeed, conflict mediation and transitional justice rely on truth commissions as a fundamental building block of peace not because such commissions provide impunity for the worst crimes; on the contrary, they reinforce comprehensive rights-based policies and access to justice.

As a recent symposium, organized by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the International Center for Transitional Justice, concluded, truth commissions contribute most to peace by reasserting the rule of law, recognizing victims, and supporting institutional reform. But, in order to succeed, these commissions must be effective, independent, and legitimate. Half-measures will not do.

Truth commissions therefore should never be established as “box-ticking” exercises to assuage local public opinion or the international community, as witnessed in Nepal. Even when broad mandates and functions are established with the best of intentions, truth commissions are often deprived of the necessary resources, leading to further frustration and disillusion. Moreover, a commission should not be led or staffed by individuals of questionable integrity, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the process.

Above all, truth commissions must be adapted to a country’s particular circumstances. As we have seen in Bosnia, Colombia, Nepal, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, the nature of conflicts and how they are resolved differ widely; so should their respective commissions. A “one-size-fits-all” solution ends up fitting no one.

It is vital that the details of each case of post-conflict transitional justice are understood and implemented. It is all too easy for political leaders to ignore victims or suppress the truth in their quest for a peace deal. But recognizing victims’ rights is an indispensable condition for lasting peace. Human suffering and victims’ dignity are too powerful to be erased by others’ political pacts. Eventually, the past demands its due: justice is not just an ideal; it is an investment in a better future.

Alan Doss is Senior Political Adviser at the Kofi Annan Foundation and a former under-secretary-general at the United Nations.

David Tolbert is President at the International Center for Transitional Justice and a former assistant secretary-general at the United Nations.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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