Overburdened truth commissions risk becoming ‘victims of their own success’– UN expert

Special Rapporteur on transitional justice Pablo de Greiff. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferré

13 September 2013 – While “truth commissions” – independent panels set up in the aftermath of conflict to resolve tensions and promote reconciliation – are vital to many countries trying to rebuild their societies, a United Nations independent expert today warned that the mechanisms risked falling short of expectations because the were burdened by overbroad mandates and unreliable funding.

Presenting his latest report to the Geneva-Based Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice Pablo de Greiff cautioned that truth commissions increasingly face a number of important challenges, and “risk becoming victims of their own success.”

“The truth about atrocities must carry consequences,” he said, but stressed that implementation of commissions’ recommendations is severely lacking and “therefore victims are left with partial, if any redress.”

Mr. de Greiff underscored that truth commissions have made significant contributions to transitional processes, giving voice to victims of atrocities, backing the implementation of other transitional justice measures, and giving a meaning to the right to truth.

However, he warned, they face various challenges which can lead to the non-implementation of recommendations; among them are overly broad mandates, flawed choices of commissioners, and insufficient and unreliable funding streams.

Describing the expectations placed on these bodies, he said that nowadays truth commissions are supposed to juggle functions of fact-finding, victim-tracing and redress, provide comprehensive analysis of underlying causes, and generate comprehensive structural and institutional reform proposals. “At times, they are even tasked with clarifying and resolving corruption cases, and with the monumental task of bringing about reconciliation,” said Mr. de Greiff.

“As temporary bodies, with finite resources and competencies, commissions are simply not in a position to meet all of these expectations,” the expert underlined. “On their own, they cannot be expected to assume such a broad array of functions and bring about a successful transition.”

“They are not and cannot be made responsible for the implementation of their own recommendations,” Mr. de Greiff stressed. “This responsibility lies clearly with the States”. In his view, “commissions need to be assigned adequate, targeted and feasible functions.”

He further stressed that truth commissions derive their power, to a large extent, from the moral authority and the expertise of commissioners, and therefore recommended that States “prioritize expertise over partisan political affiliation and ethnic identities, as the latter will likely result in tracking prevailing political or social cleavages.”

“Selection procedures need to sufficiently vet commissioners for professionalism and integrity,” the Special Rapporteur added, calling for the development of international standards.

“In the end”, he noted: “It should be remembered that insight is a precondition of, but not the same thing as, successful transformation. Revealing the truth is a critical part of processes leading to the establishment of regimes of rights. Acting upon such truth requires political determination, civil society participation, and financial resources”.

Special Rapporteur de Greiff also called on post-authoritarian and post-conflict States to pursue a comprehensive transitional justice approach and on the international community to support these countries in expeditious, reliable, and sustainable ways, throughout the work of a commission and after.

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes.


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