TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSIONSIn states where years of human rights abuses have divided the population, the cycle of violence and revenge can seem endless. In order for the country to move forward in a spirit of community after conflict has ended, there must be a period of collective healing that promotes a sense of national reconciliation or forgiveness.
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) are designed to create an accurate account of the nation’s past so that its citizens can build a common future together. TRCs address victims’ need for justice by acknowledging publicly their ordeal and by providing them with a forum to share their pain. Assigning responsibility to offenders and allowing them the opportunity to express repentance restores a sense of justice and order to society. First proposed to the government by civil society groups in 1999, the Sierra Leone TRC was inaugurated by democratically elected president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in April, 2003. It was charged with investigating the human rights abuses committed during the brutal 11-year civil war.
TRCs investigate human rights abuses through confidential interviews with victims, public hearings of their testimonies, and public confessions of offenders. Members of the commission, who are appointed by the government or by an international organization, such as the United Nations, are respected members of national, and/or international, society. Sierra Leone’s seven-member panel was chaired by a prominent bishop, Reverend Dr. Joseph Humper, and had four national and three international commissioners. The TRC began collecting statements in October 2002 and held public hearings in the twelve districts of Sierra Leone from April to August 2003. TRC investigations are often conducted confidentially in order to overcome survivors’ fears of revenge. In Sierra Leone, the prevalence of children as victims of human rights abuses made this particularly important.
TRCs are restricted to exploring the past and they cannot give an indication of any abuses being committed by the current government. Furthermore, the Commission’s recommendations may never be implemented if the government lacks the will to make the necessary reforms. If its limitations lead to an incomplete or biased report by the TRC, the mistrust created by the original conflict will continue. Most importantly, while the belief behind TRCs is that confronting the past aids reconciliation, TRCs should not advance the concept that there is only one avenue towards reconciliation. Neither should they ignore traditional cultural methods of dealing with post-conflict trauma. Thus in Sierra Leone, several communities, which traditionally embraced a “forgive and forget” approach agreed amongst themselves not to give testimony to the commission.
Despite the possible drawbacks of TRCs, they can play a vital role in overcoming the legacy of brutality, which characterizes many post-conflict societies. By creating a sense of trust and responsibility throughout the nation, TRCs lay the groundwork for the creation of stable democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society. The final reports issued by TRCs to the government serve as an educational tool for the government, the nation, and the international community.
In October 2004, after two years of investigation during which 7000 people testified, the final report of the Sierra Leone TRC was released. The report recommended that the government pay compensation to amputees, survivors of sexual violence, widows and children who were displaced and deprived during the war. Aiding these survivors in the areas of “health, housing, pensions, education, skills training and micro-credit, community reparations and symbolic reparations” would, according to the report, help to restore their dignity.
The report included a child-friendly version targeted at the main victims of the conflict. Children participated in the Commission’s investigations not just as witnesses, but as researchers, writers and editors. The children involved in the process of truth and reconciliation spoke of the relief and pride they felt through their participation. This is vital to the restoration of peace at the individual, community, and national level, where the population is educated about its past but is ready to move forward into the future with a commitment to reconciliation and peace.
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Want to Learn More?
1. CIDA Report: “Peacebuilding: Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.”
2. National Forum for Human Rights and The International Centre for Transitional Justice: “Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Special Court.” http://www.ictj.org/en/where/region1/141.html
3. Relief Web: “Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions - Lessons from Sierra Leone.”
4. Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report