Truth Commissions & Dialogue About the Past

During and after a violent conflict, the question is whether the past can truly be considered a time completely passed. We clearly cannot answer this question with a whole-hearted “yes” in light of situations in which gross violations of human rights occur. Inhumane incidents such as genocide, civil war, and totalitarian oppression leave their mark on the human being; inflict such deep wounds that those who bear them are reminded of their painful past.

Unhealed wounds then also hypothecate the peace process. Indeed, those who would try to build a future against the backdrop of a gruesome past that will not pass must realise that the future that emerges is vulnerable and fragile.

The ways in which the confrontation with the painful history of a war or oppressive regime can be taken stock of, in as dignified a manner as possible and in the development of a peaceful society, is a delicate question. Is amnesty doomed to failure?

What are the factors that turn many people’s tribunals into obstacle courses rather than into inviting pathways to peace? Do truth commissions, in their organised quest for the past, risk perpetuating the pain instead of bringing about healing? And what is the best conceivable solution to restore peace and development?

“Transitional justice” is one of the main issues debated within Pax Christi International. During the different consultations, Pax Christi Member Organisations share their experiences based on people’s own dilemmas in the struggle for finding “justice” and based on people’s own experiences of injustice.

Member Organisations of Pax Christi International in countries such as Haiti, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and throughout Africa are struggling with this dilemma. It appears to be a very complex issue.

Even though there is a broad concept of transitional justice, the issue remains on how to balance different values and levels, such as international versus local or national justice. Here, one is confronted with many choices to be made - a question that often arises is: “What comes first: justice or peace and reconciliation?”

Mutual forgiveness must not eliminate the need for justice, nor should it block the path that leads to truth. On the contrary, justice and truth represent the concrete requisites for reconciliation. Initiatives aimed at establishing international judicial bodies are therefore appropriate.

In virtue of the principle of universal jurisdiction, and guided by suitable procedural norms that respect the rights of the accused and of the victims, such bodies are able to ascertain the truth about crimes perpetrated during armed conflicts.


International Law in Today’s World

The existing means of dealing with impunity are based primarily on dealing with inter-state conflicts. The post-Cold War period has seen an increase in intra-state violence. The traditional means of dealing with impunity are also not always adequate in countries where a democratic regime takes over after a period of domestic oppression or foreign occupation.

Therefore in an increasing number of cases, official commissions are established to investigate the past and to produce a neutral, expert report that should, once and for all, tell the true story. In some cases, NGOs take the initiative to form such a commission.


International Law and the Reconciliation Process

International Law, and in particular, International Humanitarian Law has certain mechanisms to enforce justice after the end of an armed conflict. This can be a necessity in order to establish the foundations of a lasting peace.

As principle, those who are guilty of war crimes should be punished either by national courts or international tribunals, but even this juridical approach of tribunals and courts fails to meet all the needs on a practical and psychological level.

Practical in the sense that often, political will fails to apprehend war criminals, in most cases not all of them can be brought before trial and damage claims, if at all, are paid very late. In a psychological sense, many victims never get compensation or learn the truth, leading to feelings of frustration or even revenge.

It is indeed impossible to ascertain whether individual punishment and/or damage fees can satisfy the cry for justice. Victims often want the truth to be discovered, preferably by an independent or neutral body. When this truth is accepted by the whole society, it forms a basis for reconciliation.


Pax Christi in the Sphere of International Law

Members of Pax Christi International have personal experience of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in a number of countries like South Africa, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti. Through the Geneva Conventions, international law provides a framework for enforcing justice after the end of an armed conflict.

Increasingly, Pax Christi Member Organisations encourage the honest investigation of sensitive periods in the history of countries affected by atrocious violence. In Latin America, an example of this is the Church's REMHI project on the 'Recovery of Historical Memory' in Guatemala. In Africa, international attention has been devoted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

Pax Christi representatives from Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, and Angola provide the movement with their experiences and assess the potential of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions for their countries.

Over several years, Pax Christi International has organised study sessions about possibilities of Truth Commissions for participants from countries emerging out of a state of armed conflict, such as Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Angola, Peru, South Africa, and Croatia.