Last Reviewed 30 May 2012
Strategic Choices in the Design of Truth Commissions

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 Design Factors
 -Political Context


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Political Context
The constraining or enabling environment

Truth Commissions are not created in a vacuum. They are set up in response to specific human rights abuses, which in turn are an outgrowth of the particular history, political culture, and institutional structure of a country. Any given political context provides both enabling and constraining forces.

Like a geographic environment, 'political context' provides a landscape to be mindful of. Other than the chapters to follow, 'Political context' leaves the designer with little room for choice. Rather, it lays the ground for the eight defining parameters of truth commissions. For example, types of human rights abuse will shape the kind of investigation that is necessary. The political transition process will determine the extent to which former perpetrators remain in power. The greater, in turn, the power of former perpetrators, the more limited the investigative power of a commission will be. Political culture and public opinion, too, are important factors for the establishment of truth commissions. A national focus on either healing or justice will shape the creation process significantly. Widespread national support for a commission can balance out opposition from former perpetrators.

We have identified five components of political context that are particularly relevant for the design of a truth commission:

Nature of violence and human rights abuses to be investigated

In regimes with a history of human rights violations one first question to ask is: Who were the victims? Who were the perpetrators? In designing a truth commission, both victims and perpetrators have to be identified as accurately and as comprehensively as possible. Such identification will lend credibility to a commission's task of investigating the truth. Next it is important to distinguish between human rights abuses that occurred during a civil war, when abuses are commonly found on both sides, and those that were perpetrated by an authoritarian, repressive regime, when perpetrators are mostly found on one side. The more one-sided past human rights abuses are, the less disputed is the task for a commission. In the aftermath of civil wars, on the other hand, a commission's investigation is often discredited by allegations of neglecting the crimes of 'the other side'.

In the following cases, we have identified the three specific aspects of the nature of violence and human rights abuses:

  • nature of the regime

  • victims

  • perpetrators

Nature of political transition

The way in which a prolonged period of violence ends influences the atmosphere in which a truth commission will operate. Change can be brought about through military victory of one side, through a negotiated agreement with or without international pressure or through the voluntary handing over of an authoritarian regime to a democratic government (commonly through elections). Military victory over the former perpetrators of human rights abuses will allow for more significant prosecution than their voluntary withdrawal or negotiated agreement.

Consequently, aspects of the nature of political transition identified in the cases below are

  • negotiated agreement

  • military victory of one side

  • voluntary hand-over and elections

Extent of dominance and power of perpetrators after transition

The continuing power of former perpetrators or endorsers of violence has significant repercussions on the extent of fear or hope in a country in transition. It can also set limits on the scope of the investigation of truth commissions, the cooperation it meets in society and among the state and military agencies, as well as the recommendations the commission will publish. The continued dominance of perpetrators can be low, medium or high, measured by their continued holding of central offices, and their open threats against the commission and its collaborators. A further indicator for the extent of power of former perpetrators is the type of amnesty that is established. The more power former perpetrators continue to hold, the more likely an unconditional, sweeping amnesty will be passed before the old regime leaves office.

The continuum regarding the extent of dominance and power of former perpetrators is low - medium - high.

Prevailing focus on healing or justice

How a society and its main groups define justice and healing, and which of the two presents a higher priority, has consequences for the mandate given to a truth commission, and the perception of success when its findings are complete.

Public support for a truth commission

Public support for the establishment of a truth commission includes support by broader public, political parties, the political and military elite, and NGOs. The more widespread public support is, the more comprehensive the work of the truth commission can be expected to be. The more limited the support, the harder it will be for the commission to find willing cooperation from the civil society. Support can be voiced for the idea of establishing a truth commission or for a concrete design chosen by decision-makers.

Nuances of support are:

  • widespread or limited

  • for the idea of establishing a truth commission or for its concrete design

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