Print Edition - 2014-10-29  |  Oped

Sins of commission

  • There are lessons to be learned from the history of truth commissions across the world and in Nepal
- Ram Kumar Bhandari
Sins of commission

Oct 28, 2014-A few weeks ago, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the Barcelona International Peace Resource Centre held an intensive course (September 28 to October 3) on truth commissions in Barcelona, Spain. The course offered practitioners, academics, and activists from around the world an opportunity to meet, discuss, and learn from previous truth commissions and their implementation. As debate around such transitional bodies continues in Nepal, it is crucial to understand lessons from the past, where prior commissions have succeeded and failed, and apply those lessons to the Nepali context.

Myths of commission

Myths concerning truth commissions permeate Nepal’s transitional justice debate. Namely that the forthcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will resolve all disputes, address victims’ demands, and create a sense of equality upon which the country can move forward. Unfortunately, given the highly politicised nature of Nepal’s post-conflict discourse, where political leaders make decisions in the Capital without consulting victims and ordinary citizens, such assumptions are a wild fantasy.

By design, truth commissions are not a court of law nor do they have the power to bring individuals to trial. By and large, the purpose of truth commissions historically has been to examine the past and shed light on violations that took place during periods of conflict. They build civic trust by providing truth to victims and the broader nation, and reparations to victims and their families; both goals that have been largely illusory for the eight years since the end of the conflict. Ensuring a commission with a mandate built on truth telling is a crucial first step to rebuilding civic trust and creating an environment in which people can speak openly about violations and begin to trust in one another again. Indeed, such principles form the basis of what social scientist Johan Galtung termed a ‘positive peace’, one that deals with the underlying structures of violence in an attempt to avoid future conflict.

Given the myths surrounding the forthcoming TRC, broader dialogue is needed, concerning the mandate and timing of the commission before it can be effectively formed. While truth commissions cannot achieve the trial and prosecution of perpetrators, they can, quite importantly, establish the facts; care for victims by creating a safe space to share stories of suffering and hardship; create a sense of recognition for victims who have until now, been largely ignored; contribute to changes that can initiate deep social change; and finally, serve as a platform for the discussion of policy changes to make recommendations to the government.

A South African study

In conceptualising the mandate for Nepal’s truth commission, South Africa’s post-apartheid truth commission is a useful case study. The South African TRC was the first to adopt a model of national consultation. The body received input from civil society and other institutions; however, the time allotted for feedback was insufficient and as a result, only a limited number of experts and groups (mostly NGOs) had the opportunity to participate. “NGOs became spokespersons for victims and important stakeholders in the consultation process,” said Shirley Gunn, an anti-Apartheid activist, an ex-combatant in the African National Congress armed wing, and founder of the Khulumani Support Group, the largest victims’ group in the world, established after the commission was formed in 1996. In addition to inadequate consultation, there was no monitoring mechanism during and after the commission, even to implement its recommendations.

Nearly 12 years after the submission of the South African TRC’s final report, its recommendations have been sidelined by the justice department and not fully implemented. Victims’ groups and the general public continue to demand that attention be paid to their everyday needs, even as the TRC has been exalted internationally as a grand success. Gunn expressed disappointment with the South African TRC and its provision of amnesties and political pardons. She noted that the TRC largely fulfilled political objectives, and was glorified by the international community despite its failure in the eyes of victims and survivors. Gunn has worked to demystify the legacy of the South African TRC for years. “As an instrument to move from conflict to peace, the TRC was very important, but we could have done better,” she argues. “Internationally, South Africa’s TRC is regarded as a model achievement, praised for bringing about reconciliation; however, few prosecutions were conducted, and victims are still waiting for the reparations recommended by the TRC.”

South Africa’s challenges suggest that Nepal must have a clear vision of what the forthcoming TRC is meant to achieve. Politically, the commission must be recognised as a crucial institution for the nation’s current healing and for its future; while socially, the commission must have a degree of legitimacy, particularly among conflict victims. This does not necessarily mean that there will be complete agreement on all issues, particularly as truth is always a contested concept in political transitions. However, families and victims want to know the facts and circumstances surrounding violations to gain a sense of closure and allow proper mourning. Society at large will also benefit from a better understanding of history and truth—knowledge that can help prevent future violations and address the pervasive structural violence that fuels conflict.

Nepal’s own history

The commission’s legitimacy can also grow after the work is complete, through outreach and publication. Of the 40 truth commissions that have operated around the world, a number have faced problems at this stage. For example, in Kenya, when the commission submitted its final report to parliament, the report was changed by politicians. In Timor-Leste, the president didn’t approve of the report and withheld the document from parliament for a year. In the Solomon Islands, the commission submitted its report to the government but after two years, the report remains unreleased.

Nepal’s history is worrying in this respect. The Mallik Commission (1990) and the Rayamajhi Commission (2006) submitted reports to the government after the first and second People’s Movements respectively. Those reports have never been published, their recommendations concerning political reconciliation and top level political compromises never implemented.

This is time to learn from both other contexts and from Nepal’s history, as well as time to discuss openly in a constructive way the expectations and limitations of truth commissions. Public dialogue can support conflict victims and contribute to social change and conflict transformation in a broader framework of sustained peace in the local and national reality of post-conflict peace.

Bhandari is coordinator of the National Victims’ Alliance

Published: 29-10-2014 08:57

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