- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001


"Truth commissions" are now popular devices for reviewing the actions of defunct authoritarian governments, or as elements in resolving intense civil conflicts. Perhaps the best known is South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established under President Nelson Mandela's post-apartheid government, which, as its name implies, sought to overcome the divisions caused by the criminal acts of both the apartheid government and its opponents. By revealing the "truth" about the past, it was said, the commission would promote (if not necessarily achieve) national reconciliation.
Whether and to what extent the South African experiment and the 20 "truth commissions" studied by Priscilla Hayner succeeded is largely a matter of judgment, of which there is surprisingly little in her book, despite its clear political biases. The author has assembled through extensive interviews the most comprehensive study of truth commissions to date, delineating their widely differing missions, objectives and structures; the strengths and weaknesses of their respective outcomes and their ultimate impact on their societies.
The 21 commissions studied include the five she considers most prominent (Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa), as well as others (all, with one exception, from Latin America and Africa) meeting her definition of "an official investigation into a past pattern of abuses."
"Unspeakable Truths" provides a wealth of information and insights on truth commissions, much of it previously inaccessible except to specialists, and for that reason alone warrants consideration by students of political conflict. Moreover, the author says, probably to the dismay of many in the international "human rights" community, that truth commissions confront issues that cannot "be well-addressed by universal guidelines."
Instead, these questions require looking at the specific needs and contexts of each country. Nonetheless, the author is less than satisfactory on two critical questions: First, why do some nations decide not to revisit their troubled pasts? And second, can truth commissions coexist with the prosecution of those accused of the "unspeakable acts," or are the two approaches simply inconsistent?
On the first question, the author examines Mozambique and Cambodia, and concludes that "a country may legitimately choose to forego official truth-seeking at the time of transition." In Mozambique, she reports "resistance to remembering the past seemed to cut across all levels of society," and that "peace and reconciliation, on the basic level of living together without ongoing conflict, came remarkably quickly to Mozambique." Cambodia is a less compelling example (and its divisions remain unresolved), but most striking is the absence of any consideration of the former communist states of Eastern and Central Europe or the Soviet Union.
The former communist countries suffered between 45 and 70 years of sustained ideological assault on every element of human relations. Only one former communist country, East Germany, established a truth commission under the author's definition. Her near complete omission of any evaluation as to why the European states chose a path different from those in Latin America and Africa leaves a huge gap in her analysis of the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
On the second point, the relationship of truth commissions to the criminal prosecution of human rights violators, the author states correctly: "[T]ruth commissions are of a fundamentally different nature from courtroom trials, and function with different goals in mind." Prosecutions have more limited objectives, and "even successful prosecutions do not resolve the conflict and pain associated with past abuses." Indeed, she points out that these basic differences formed the basis for the United Nations Yugoslavia Tribunal's resolute 1997 opposition to the creation of a Bosnia truth commission. Even so, the author is at pains (unsuccessfully) to reconcile the two mechanisms.
These two deficiencies underscore a more basic and in some ways puzzling aspect of the book. Although filled with information on truth commission structures, powers, methodologies (should hearings be public or private?) outcomes (should commissions have the power to grant amnesties?) and the implementation of their recommendations, the author tells us very little about the political contexts in which the commissions were established.
What Mrs. Hayner does not do is explain truth commissions as part of the "deal" that either ended national conflict or began the transition to democratic government. How that "deal" emerged and how it plays out over time are critical to understanding the pieces of the deal. In that very political sense, clinical descriptions of what procedures were useful in some cases but not others are ultimately unsatisfying. It is all very well to talk about psychological "healing" and grief counseling, but the book's paucity of political analysis and political "feel" leaves one with a very detached sense of reality on the ground. That will require further work by someone less consumed by the international human rights culture.


John Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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