Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and Racial Justice
Throughout the world, societies seeking to confront mass atrocity in the past have created Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) and related initiatives, some of which have emerged from civil society and been created by nonprofit organizations, faith-based movements, universities, and municipalities. Taken together, there have been hundreds of so-called “truth commissions” since they were first introduced in the 1980s. This diverse and robust set of initiatives has been intended to contribute to peacebuilding, democratization, and the realization of human rights. By confronting the past, the argument goes, societies can build a better future.
Truth commissions have frequently examined atrocities committed in the recent past, but increasingly have been formed to confront historical legacies of violence, such as the long-term consequences of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, or European Colonialism in Africa.
This raises the question of whether, and how, these kinds of initiatives might be relevant for ongoing racial justice movements in the world. At Memria, we have been thinking about the ways in which truthtelling is related to storytelling and, perhaps more importantly, to storylistening and storysharing At the heart of many TRCs and related initiatives is the idea of telling the “story of us”. By collecting, aggregating, and sharing stories (testimonies), truth commissions can help to shift societal narratives about what is right and wrong. The Memria platform makes it exceptionally easy for organizations to gather, curate, and share audio stories for oral history projects, community engagement initiatives, restorative justice efforts, and other professional storysharing projects.
The first wave of truth commissions emerged in response to the autocratic penchant for obfuscation and lies in Latin America and Africa. Family members of victims, for example, sought to know the truth about loved ones who had been forcibly “disappeared” in Argentina and Chile, only to be met with stonewalling, denial, silence, or blatant lying by the authorities. The cry for “truth” emerged from the pain, confusion, and deep injustice that was caused by the absence of truth.
Efforts to confront deep-rooted racism and historical patterns of injustice also confront lies, but their challenge is arguably different. For example, in the United States, where calls for a truth commission to confront the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade emerge regularly including in the US Congress, there are 400 years of history to be grappled with, with complex and multilayered impacts on the entire population, and especially at least 37.5 million African-Americans. In the US, truth-telling is also tied directly to reparations. In Europe, legacies of colonialism, including ongoing marginalization and racism, have created demands for truth-telling and reparations that have their own complex international dynamics, such as the history of Germany’s involvement in Namibia or the role of Belgium in the Congo. The following are some factors that might set these initiatives apart from earlier experiences.
Earlier truth commissions have often focused on the testimonies of victims, witnesses, survivors, and family members of victims. Given that the identified victim class tended to be relatively small (in the case of Peru, for example, over 60,000 victims were identified, in a country with a population of about 30 million) and often still alive (and able to give testimony about violence), truth commissions had a relatively straightforward methodological path. While it will always be important to gather testimonials, new truth commissions will probably need to shift methodologies in ways that look at deep historical trends and layered arrays of victimization. In the case of racial justice, for example, this might mean more historians, archivists, and historical sociologists, as well as access to complex research sites, like slave grave sites and institutional records of government and businesses.
Official truth commissions and unofficial initiatives
Although formal, official, state-sanctioned truth commissions have tended towards similar structures, facilitated by the cross-national sharing of models and mechanisms, a plethora of diverse civil society initiatives and “Unofficial Truth Projects” have emerged. For example, certain museums and sites of conscience, oral history projects, social movement websites, libraries, and human rights organizations can all be seen as forms of unofficial truth-telling. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, for example, had only a dozen members in 1999 and today has over 300 members in 65 countries. The founder of the Legacy Museum in the United States, Bryan Stevenson, has frequently emphasized the link between the museum and truth-telling and reconciliation. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba is an ongoing institutional component of the Canadian commission (2008-2015). Future truth commissions will want to learn from these kinds of efforts, partner with them, and co-create new forms of truth-telling and commission follow-up.
Linking truth commissions with large-scale reparations
Truth commissions have a mixed record in terms of linking with reparations. Arguably the most successful cases have contributed to a viable set of specific reparations policies with a defined and comparatively small set of victims. As mentioned above, in the US or European cases, the possible number of victims could be defined as millions of people. And clarifying both the harm experienced by those victims and the concomitant compensation for that harm is far from straightforward. Truth-telling efforts that are explicitly linked to clarifying reparations policies will need to develop an entirely different skill-set and partnerships, such as with organizations like National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC).
The role of technology and communications in truth-telling
Earlier truth commissions did not have access to the technological resources and tools that are now available. These tools could vastly change the scale of operations of a truth commission, allowing it to reach and engage millions of people in a way that was previously unimaginable. Machine learning could provide new ways of analyzing data; smartphones and web-based platforms, as well as communication apps like WhatsApp and voice memos, can provide access to a truth commission’s work in new ways; and distribution channels like social media, including new and emerging media, can provide entirely new forms of dialogue that take commissions beyond truth-“telling” towards the harder challenge of truth-“listening”. While truth commissions have developed powerful methods for “seeking” and “telling” the truth, they have been less successful at expanding and shifting long-established and pernicious societal narratives about history and race. Social movements, such as the Movement for Black Lives in the United States and movements to remove offensive statues and monuments, can certainly play this role, and commissions can complement those efforts by surfacing and sharing unheard voices and stories that should be integrated into national or local narratives. But to do so also requires attention to how to engage broader audiences and how to promote social dialogue.
In today's context, truth-seeking and truth-telling represent “a conversation that is probably more important than ever”, as we seek to build “new forms of identity”, in the words of Martin Abregu, a seasoned analyst of these trends, now Vice President for International Programs at the Ford Foundation As another observer, Nomfundo Mogapi, the Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South African, puts it, these kinds of initiatives can result in “a changing of culture” in which societies transform the “social contract, in terms of what matters, what binds them together, what divides them together” in ways that celebrate human rights.
Truth Commissions in the United States
As we write in our publication, Why Do Public History, in the United States and numerous other countries around the world, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, there is a renewed interest in truth and reconciliation initiatives to deal with long-term legacies of violence committed in the past— often in the distant past. Like the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined a 100-year period starting in the late 1800s to unearth and share the traumatic experiences inflicted on indigenous peoples through the Residential School System, these new initiatives may delve deeper into the historical past. "By taking more of a longue durée approach, they seek to uncover patterns and legacies that endure considerably beyond the events under examination". More information about these initiatives and be found on this interactive map compiled by Princeton University's Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI), a non-partisan research initiative that tracks and mitigates political violence in the United States.
This essay was adapted from a previously published version in the blog series managed by the German agency The Working Group on Peace and Development (Die Arbeitsgemeinschaft Frieden und Entwicklung: FriEnt), which can be found here. Die Arbeitsgemeinschaft Frieden und Entwicklung (FriEnt) ist ein Zusammenschluss von staatlichen Organisationen, kirchlichen Hilfswerken, zivilgesellschaftlichen Netzwerken und politischen Stiftungen.