What it is: Commissions for Truth and Reconciliation research and report on human rights abuses during a troubled period of a country’s history. Abuses may have taken place during a war or other violent conflict, or they may have been carried out by a brutally repressive regime. These Commissions give victims of abuse the chance to tell their stories. They are also able to meet, publicly and face to face, some of the people who abused them. The aim of the Commissions is to establish a true account of events, to learn how to prevent such things happening again, and to help people move forward into a more hopeful future.

What it means: Commissions of this kind (though not under this name) began in Latin America in the 1980s with the investigations into the ‘disappearance’ of many citizens in Argentina and Bolivia. In the 1990s similar enquiries into brutality against citizens were held in Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Uruguay. The practice spread to Asia (East Timor, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea and Sri Lanka) and Africa (Chad, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe). In Europe, human rights violations in the former East Germany have been investigated, and in 2002 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission started work in Serbia and Montenegro, to examine war crimes committed during the 1990s in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The most famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in South Africa in 1995. For two years it held public hearings throughout the country. Victims of the apartheid regime were able to talk publicly for the first time about their suffering. The people who had caused it were persuaded to attend with an offer of amnesty for admitting their guilt. (It meant that they would be free from prosecution for the particular crime being described. This did not mean that they all escaped justice: in some cases their victims successfully opposed amnesty.)

Human rights organisations like Amnesty International believe that people who commit grave violations of human rights must all be brought to justice. But other human rights experts think courts of law are not always the way to reconciliation: ‘You have to find a way to live with your enemies.’ In South Africa it was thought especially important for communities to hear from the perpetrators why they did what they did - both sides needed to interpret and understand each other‘s histories, in order to leave the past behind. But what‘s necessary for this to happen, and to work, is that people do really tell the truth: a difficult standard to reach. Many of the victims in South Africa were helped by the Commission because their stories were listened to and respected. But many also came away saying that their persecutors had lied and their publicly stated remorse was a sham. The truth looks different to every individual: as we know from ordinary everyday life, there is no single truth of memory or experience. And of course people are selective about the truths they tell.

Think about it:
It‘s a fact that there‘s nothing simple about truth. What kind of truth can a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hope to discover and define? Factual truth - exactly what happened to whom, where, when and how? Narrative truth - each person‘s honest account of how it looked to them? Discovered truth - a better understanding of events because of new information, dialogue and discussion? Something of all of these, maybe? How may all or any of these truths help people to become reconciled after conflict? Is telling such truths in public the best way to go? Do you think truths might be told one way in public and another way in private? Are there any other ways in which truth and reconciliation might be achieved?

(2) Critics of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are particularly unhappy about letting off offenders simply because they say they are sorry. These critics think human rights abusers should be publicly named and shamed. It‘s certainly very hard for victims to see their torturers still living, unpunished, in the community. But, say others, that‘s exactly what forgiveness and reconciliation means. Perhaps what matters most is that people - and especially the abusers - publicly acknowledge how much their victims suffered and don‘t try to make light of it or brush it aside. (Apartheid was spoken of by some of its former practitioners as merely a ‘mistake’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘a closed book’.) What may matter even more is setting victims free from their painful and humiliating history. That means making sure that not a single abuse is regarded as ‘justified’. It means wiping false charges from the records. It means searching out every survivor falsely accused, wrongfully arrested, tortured, stripped of home and possessions or otherwise deprived, and finding ways to repair at least some of the damage to them. It means restoring their dignity and their place in the community. What do you think might be the best ways to do this? What would help you? What would help people who are different from you? Is the answer the same - and if not, why not? What does ‘reconciliation’ mean to you?

(3) An almost universal symbol of friendliness is the handshake. A simple handshake can be the first step towards reconciliation. Think about the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch missionary and concentration camp survivor. After the Second World War, Corrie spent years urging the importance of forgiveness. Then one day she found herself in a room with her former camp guard. This man had killed her sister. He walked towards her, held out his hand, and asked Corrie to forgive him. But she found she was physically unable to lift her hand. Everything in her said ‘No, I can‘t do this’. But in the end, by a tremendous act of willpower, she raised her arm and grasped the man‘s hand. She said later, ‘In that moment I was able to start to forgive, and my hatred disappeared. What a liberation it was! Forgiveness is the key which unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred.’ Think about it.