Truth and Reconciliation: The Global Politics of Justice

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya's Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

The BBC is reporting that a long-awaited report investigating violence and human rights abuses in Kenya will recommend some prosecutions of key officials for their roles. The Truth Reconciliation and Justice Commission was established in the aftermath of post-election violence that rocked Kenya following the 2008 presidential elections. However, its mandate was broader and included looking at past injustices from the Kenyan independence in December 1963 through the disputed February 2008 elections. According to the BBC’s coverage, Ahmed Sheikh Farah, who sat on the committee, indicated that “victims would be happy” with the recommendations but also warned that “we have been centered on reconciliation—healing, unity, that kind of focus.”

The report comes at an interesting time in Kenya’s political history. About six weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidency and was sworn into office. However, Kenyatta has been charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating some of the violence following the last presidential election. That violence resulted in more than 1,500 deaths and displaced more than 300,000 people from their homes.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are interesting instruments. They are generally charged with revealing wrongdoing rather than achieving justice per se. And they have been growing in popularity in recent

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

years. One of the earliest was Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or CONADEP). CONADEP was established shortly after the collapse of Argentina’s military government in 1983, and was charged with investigating the fate of the estimated 30,000 persons who were “disappeared” by the Argentine government between 1976 and 1983. Perhaps the most famous was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 and was charged with witnessing and recording the crimes and human rights abuses committed by both state and opposition forces during the apartheid era. Other notable examples include Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade, which is currently investigating human rights abuses by the country’s former military government, and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is currently investigating human rights abuses in the country’s residential school system for the Canada’s first nations.

Most truth and reconciliation commissions represent an effort to expand understanding rather that to achieve justice. They generally lack the power to prosecute offenders. Indeed, in many cases, like the South African TRC, individuals offering testimony before the commission were generally granted amnesty for any confessions they offered. The emphasis, in other words, is on promoting transparency and providing a historical record and testimony rather than on achieving justice in the traditional sense. But this also a source of controversy, as victims can sometimes feel as though the perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses can escape punishment.

What do you think? Do truth commissions represent an instrument of justice by witnessing and providing a historical record of human rights abuses? Or do they undermine justice by permitting human rights abusers to escape criminal prosecution? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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