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Truth Commissions

Onur Bakiner evaluates the success of truth commissions in promoting political, judicial, and social change. He argues that even when commissions produce modest change as a result of political constraints, they open new avenues for human rights activism and transform public discourses on memory, truth, justice, and reconciliation.

Truth Commissions
Memory, Power, and Legitimacy

Onur Bakiner

2016 | 328 pages | Cloth $69.95
Political Science / Law / Political Science
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Definition and Conceptual History of Truth Commissions: What Are They? What Have They Become?
Chapter 2. Speaking Truth to Power? The Politics of Truth Commissions
Chapter 3. One Truth Among Others? Truth Commissions' Struggle for Truth and Memory

Chapter 4. Truth Commission Impact: An Assessment of How Commissions Influence Politics and Society
Chapter 5. Explaining Variation in Truth Commission Impact (I): Chile and Peru
Chapter 6. Explaining Variation in Truth Commission Impact (II): Evidence from Thirteen Countries
Chapter 7. Comparing Truth Commissions' Memory Narratives: Chile and Peru

Chapter 8. Nation and (Its New) Narration: A Critical Reading of Truth Commissions



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The National Theater of Guatemala City hosted an unusual crowd on February 25, 1999. The Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala's truth commission, was going to hand over its final report to the nation's president, Álvaro Arzú, before an audience of high-ranking civilian and military officials and a number of victims' groups and human rights organizations. Members of the political elite must have been comfortable enough, thinking that the truth commission, systematically deprived of resources and juridical powers to carry out its mandate, would present relatively uncontroversial results. However, the chair of the truth commission, Christian Tomuschat, took the stage to present the findings that little by little took the comfort away from political leaders: findings that referred to some of the atrocities the military committed against the Mayan population during the civil war as acts of genocide; findings that excited the victims' groups in the audience to such an extent that they began to clamor for "justicia!" At the end of the ceremony President Arzú, surprised and upset, refused to take the commission's final report directly from Tomuschat's hands and sent his peace secretary to receive the report instead.

South Africa's famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission was facing accusations of bias since its inception. Opposition figures kept insisting that the African National Congress (ANC) established the panel to discredit political rivals and impose its interpretation of history as the official truth. When the commission completed its task, the expectation was that ANC's opponents, especially the members of the outgoing apartheid regime, would object to the final report, while the ANC would endorse it wholeheartedly. The opposition did not surprise the observers. However, some sectors within the ANC leadership, disappointed to learn that the commission had implicated their movement in past atrocities, sought a last-minute political maneuver to prevent the final report from getting published. It was only Nelson Mandela's personal intervention in favor of the commission that saved the report.

* * *

Political-institutional mechanisms to come to terms with the past have swept across the globe since the early 1980s. Pieces of the past flew out of dusty archives, echoed in prison walls and presidential palaces, and erupted onto the political stage, sometimes through the choking voice of an old woman searching for a lost son, other times in the solemn words of a politician apologizing for past wrongs, and yet other times in the form of angry protests against the "unpatriotic" human rights defenders. Although it does not enjoy the status of universal consensus, the demand that every polity confront its past in an open-minded and critical fashion has become widely accepted. Human rights violators in Argentina and Rwanda, Guatemala and Serbia, face domestic or international courts; legislatures all around the world recognize genocides and impose punitive measures against denial; governments apologize for past abuses to rectify historical injustice; and victims receive material and symbolic reparations in many countries. All these measures address but a fraction of all political violence and human rights violations, and the forces of impunity and amnesia still prevail in most cases, but, arguably, individual and civil society advocacy in the wake of atrocities elicits official responses at a greater rate than any other period in human history.

One novel institution that appears to embody this zeitgeist of coming to terms with the past is called "the truth commission." Incoming democratic governments have been establishing truth commissions since the early 1980s to investigate grave human rights violations committed under previous regimes. Even after the third wave of democratization ebbed, consolidated democracies like those in Uruguay and South Korea and reformist authoritarian regimes such as the one in Morocco resorted to truth commissions to set the historical record straight.

A glance at the news over the last few years shows that truth commissions are here to stay. Côte d'Ivoire and Thailand established truth commissions in 2010 and 2011 respectively to examine recent political violence; Venezuela's government and opposition agreed to do the same in early 2014. A section of the Basque Left (izquierda abertzale) called for an international truth commission in Spain's Basque region in 2012, and the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, asked the same for Zimbabwe. Some politicians and the media are testing the waters for a commission in Northern Ireland.

Of course, not every truth commission initiative ends in success. Civic groups and legislators have recently proposed to establish commissions, to no avail, in settings as diverse as Indonesia and the United States, Mexico and Turkey. Nepal's Supreme Court blocked an attempt to establish a truth commission in 2013 out of fear that such a panel would grant amnesties for serious crimes. A similar proposal met the same fate at the hands of the Legislative Assembly in Bolivia the same year. Yet, even failed attempts reveal the extent to which this institutional response to past atrocities (and disagreements over the meaning of truth, justice, memory, reconciliation, recognition, and forgiveness) has become central to the political controversies of today.

The introductory anecdotes from Guatemala and South Africa point to a simple fact: truth commissions are political, that is to say, they are sites of contestation over material and symbolic resources. Outgoing and incoming politicians, government and opposition parties, victims' groups, human rights organizations, transnational advocacy networks, the judiciary, state security institutions, rebel groups, and the media participate in truth commission processes to achieve multiple, and often contradictory, objectives. The fact that commissions are the stage on which the complexity of interests, incentives, and values associated with nation building and truth telling is played out does not mean that commissioners and the staff simply replicate the political and ideological struggles taking place in society. Commissions are attentive, but not servile, to the broader political context. What makes them essentially political is that the commissioners and the staff constantly make choices when they define such basic objectives as truth, reconciliation, justice, memory, reparation, and recognition, and decide how those objectives should be met and whose needs should be served. Inevitably there will be winners and losers in a truth commission process. Thus, assessing the achievements and shortcomings of truth commissions requires identifying the complex set of actors, interests, values, and expectations that play into the politics of truth commissions and also recognizing commissions' agency as a crucial factor.

The anecdotes reveal an important pattern: truth commissions can be subversive. Politicians often lend them initial support in the hope of taming the societal pressure for justice and historical truth and imposing their vision of nation building. Yet, commissions have managed to surprise and upset powerful individuals and institutions many times. Even when they legitimize an incoming regime by laying bare the crimes of the previous one, their findings and conclusions may prove inconvenient for the new leaders, as the example of South Africa demonstrates. Of course, commissions are neither fully subversive nor fully docile. Comparative analysis should account for the unintended and unforeseen consequences of a truth commission process and explain why some commissions influence politics and society the way they do, whereas others do not. This is what this book sets out to do.

Truth Commission Impact

As more countries adopt truth commissions, human rights trials, victim-centered reparations, and purges of human rights violators from public office, the ability of these institutional mechanisms to deliver on their promises of justice, restitution, reconciliation, historical truth, and democratic strengthening is increasingly questioned. For national governments and foreign donors, the question of impact is closely related to funding choices, as transitional justice measures often compete with other state- and nation-building initiatives during difficult transitions. Furthermore, reckoning with past wrongs can be politically sensitive, controversial, even destabilizing. Therefore, incoming regimes want to weigh the expected political benefits and costs before jumping on the global transitional justice bandwagon. Finally, the ethical stakes of invoking truth, justice, and reparation in the face of individual trauma and social dissolution necessitate studies of transitional justice impact.

Scholars and practitioners in the fields of transitional justice and peace studies often disagree on the very definition of such essentially contested concepts as justice, reconciliation, and truth. Even if normative disagreements are suspended, empirical research on the effectiveness of transitional justice yields widely divergent results, reflecting the deep epistemological and methodological divisions across disciplines. Are we observing a "justice cascade" increasingly overpowering obstacles to human rights accountability, or should we adjust our expectations to some form of justice "in balance" with amnesty? Do truth commissions promote reconciliation between victims and perpetrators and/or between former enemies, or is reconciliation an unrealistic conclusion given that commissions often leave behind dissatisfied victims and unapologetic perpetrators? Should governments and foreign donors sequence their policy and funding decisions in search of a future political context conducive to human rights accountability, or should they stand firm in support of human rights and the rule of law from the start, ignoring the short-term political costs of such support? Some answers come from detailed case studies, whereas others rely on comparative data from many countries. In the end, however, the enormous divergence in the answers and the difficulty of initiating dialogue across methodological and disciplinary boundaries limit our ability to make sense of the achievements and shortcomings of transitional justice. After decades of journalistic and scholarly work on coming to terms with past human rights violations, it seems that we know a lot, but understand little.

This book offers a deeper understanding of truth commissions, one of the chief mechanisms of postconflict justice and repair in today's world. The motivation comes from three key observations. First, many truth commissions have published findings, historical explanations, and recommendations that proved inconvenient to endorse and implement into policy for the political leaders, as explained above. Second, some of the bolder and more comprehensive truth commissions have generated surprisingly little impact in terms of policy reform and the public acknowledgment of human rights violations by key political actors. And third, even when some commissions have failed to generate observable policy impact, they have managed to inspire civil society activism in unanticipated ways by triggering the creation of new victims' organizations, promoting public debates over social memory, and inducing civil society actors to monitor the country's human rights policy.

The motivating question is: What are the practical and normative implications of a truth commission for a society coming to terms with a violent and divisive past? This is an admittedly ambitious quest, which I divide into smaller, more manageable questions throughout the course of the book: In what ways do truth commissions facilitate policy reform, human rights accountability, and the public recognition of human rights violations? What is the nature of state-civil society interactions during a commission's work? To what extent have truth commissions maintained, challenged, or transformed public discourses on memory, truth, justice, reconciliation, recognition, nationalism, and political legitimacy? What explains cross-national variation in their impact on politics and society? In what ways do truth commissions take part in the struggles for social memory in societies deeply divided over the meaning of past political violence? What does the popularity of truth commissions say about the relationship between truth and politics in today's world?

Democratization and transitional justice scholars have posed similar questions. Under what conditions do governments establish truth commissions? How does the political balance of power shape these commissions? How do commissions serve, if at all, justice, truth, and reconciliation? This book has developed out of thought-provoking academic debates around these questions. However, its scope, as well as central concern, is distinctive. It documents the ways in which truth commissions not only reflect the balance of power during delicate political transitions but also unsettle this balance in unforeseen ways. It seeks to explain commissions' impact on policy, political attitudes, judicial behavior, and social norms by embedding commissions in the context of societal and political struggles over historical truth and justice, yet also acknowledging the independent agency of commission members.

Truth commissions should be rethought as an inherently conflictive space for action and reflection by virtue of the tensions and contradictions built into their institutional design. They are established as investigatory bodies free from direct political intervention—at least ideally. Politicians and the commissioners themselves often portray a commission's task as the ethical and practical reconstruction of the nation. Commissions' autonomy, political efficacy, and transformative potential are therefore crucial for understanding what they expect to accomplish in contemporary societies. Yet, the very conditions under which commissions are set up, supported, and endorsed reveal their dependence on, and vulnerability before, influential decision makers and institutions that set limits on commissions' ability to transform politics and society. The tension between agency and vulnerability defies simplistic explanations of what truth commissions should or can achieve.

Truth commissions arise from, and generate impact through, complex political and social processes. Naturally, the sponsoring institution (frequently the government, but also the parliament, courts, or international organizations) pursues a narrow, if not entirely self-serving, set of political goals. The willingness of incoming governments to set up commissions has led critical commentators to label these bodies as instruments of political legitimation. In addition, the widespread resort to truth commissions during negotiated transitions where the outgoing authoritarian elites enjoy significant de facto and de jure power has led many observers to portray commissions as a second-best policy option to criminal prosecution. Accordingly, incoming democratic governments take into consideration the popular demand for the prosecution of human rights violators, but the threat of an authoritarian backlash prevents them from pursuing retributive justice. Instead, they adopt the less controversial policy of establishing a truth commission to satisfy the demands of victims, victims' relatives, and human rights organizations. Thus, truth commissions are modeled as a policy outcome reflecting the interests and balance of power across influential political and social actors.

However, the convenience that truth commissions offer political elites is only part of the story. The findings, historical narratives, and recommendations of truth commissions frequently surprise, upset, and delegitimize influential individuals and organizations, including the sponsors and advocates of the commission. Furthermore, the changes truth commissions have produced in policy and political attitudes do not necessarily conform to the anticipations of politicians, human rights advocates and scholars. Governments sometimes implement commissions' recommendations, but politically driven impact often falls short of the original aspirations, as governments can ignore the recommendations or implement them selectively. Despite the near-universal expectation that commissions should promote reconciliation, they have instead heightened tensions over the meaning of the national past, at least in the short run. Perpetrators and their political allies have acknowledged their responsibility for past abuses and sought reconciliation only in a small number of countries, and only if they are given material incentives (such as amnesty) or if the long-term political and judicial transformations make such a gesture necessary. Likewise, prosecutors have made use of the findings of a truth commission only in a small number of countries where the legal, political, and institutional context is auspicious. Nonetheless, even if truth commissions do not contribute to retributive justice everywhere, it is also true that they do not undermine human rights accountability: the enormous controversy over the South African amnesty hearings notwithstanding, most truth commissions do not grant or recommend amnesty provisions, and even where they do (as in South Africa and Liberia), most perpetrators fail to qualify for amnesty.

While truth commissions do not always generate impact in expected ways, their unanticipated effects need to be acknowledged. A commission may trigger civil society mobilization around its findings and recommendations, so much so that even after the commission disbands, the societal struggles over historical memory, human rights accountability, and victim-centered reparations may reference the commission as a focal point. Civic pressures have resulted in the delayed adoption of recommendations into policy in several countries where governments initially ignored the commission's work. Civil society mobilization has been stronger in cases where domestic and international human rights organizations and victims' groups take active part in structuring the commission.

Since truth commission impact is by and large determined by a commission's capacity to exercise agency, as well as its reception by politicians and civil society actors, variation across truth commissions in terms of agency and reception should be explained. This book documents sources of variation in truth commission impact at every stage of a commission process: (1) the creation of a commission, a process in which the basic goals and procedures are decided on, and the commissioners are appointed; (2) the commission process itself, shaped by dynamics of collaboration and conflict between the commissioners, the political elite, state bureaucracies, and civil society actors; and (3) the post-commission process, in which these numerous actors acknowledge or deny, adopt or ignore, the findings and recommendations of a commission.

A note of caution: nothing would be more misleading than to suppose that all truth commissions operate uniformly. There is considerable variation across commissions in terms of power dynamics, stated objectives, actual processes, and outcomes. Throughout the book truth commissions refer to ad hoc panels with characteristics similar enough to make conceptualization and comparative analysis possible, while acknowledging the need to account for variation across experiences.

History, Ethics, and Politics

An examination of truth commissions' impact on contemporary societies should not be limited to questions of causal effect on policies and attitudes. The worldwide popularity of truth commissions is the clearest manifestation of a greater phenomenon of memory politics, that is to say, contestations over meaning of past atrocities committed by states and violent nonstate actors. As official propaganda is increasingly challenged by societal demands for accurate and truthful representations of the past, and as self-reflective and critical historiographies counter conventional views of history as a source of national glory, truth commissions face the difficult task of policing the boundaries of truth and lie, fact and opinion, and past and present. Therefore, this book seeks to explain why factual and historical truth have become so central to contemporary politics, and how the construction of truth in truth commissions shapes, and is shaped by, this new relationship between history, ethics, and politics.

Truth commissions offer a peculiar solution to one of the key problems of contemporary politics: recovering the factual truth about past violations and narrating national history in the context of nation (re)building. Their prominence in today's world reflects the hope, shared by many citizens, civil society activists, intellectuals, and politicians, that a self-critique of the past will help rebuild a divided nation on the basis of shared values. Therefore, understanding the role of truth commissions in contemporary politics requires an examination of their participation in struggles over social memory.

How, if at all, do truth commissions shape efforts to come to terms with the past? Situating truth commissions in the historical dialectic of modern politics offers some key insights. Commissions have come into existence when the nation-state's hegemony over history was increasingly facing challenges. Despite their claims to equal citizenship and social inclusion, nation-states and nationalism have almost always reproduced existing patterns of exclusion and marginalization and created new forms of vulnerability. Social cleavages along the lines of class, ethnicity, race, gender, and region were further aggravated in the second half of the twentieth century, when violent internal conflict was accompanied in most countries by state-led efforts to mislead the public about the causes, patterns, and consequences of violence through propaganda and deliberate lying. The acquiescence and complicity of judicial institutions created a situation whereby the defense of human rights was taken up by victims' associations and human rights organizations, which, through relentless and courageous activism, pushed the recovery of factual truth and an honest discussion about past violations onto the center stage of national politics during transitions. Truth commissions reflect this aspiration for a fact-based, critical, and national (but not nationalist) notion of factual-cum-historical truth that should reorient the nation and the nation-state in light of a new ethics of political conduct. As a result, most commissions to date have combined human rights investigation with a historical narrative on the causes, patterns, and consequences of political violence and violations.

The tremendous challenge of articulating an ethics of national reconstruction in a transitional context exposes the ambiguities and limitations built into truth commissions. They seek to recuperate the status of facts in politics, but their findings have limited or no legal sanction. Some of them reference international legal and moral norms to address the nation-state's failures, but their scope, limited to the nation both as object and audience, prevents them from advocating a postnational political project. Ultimately, even in the case of commissions that produce comprehensive narratives and make broad recommendations, the striving for a supra-political, ethical "founding moment" for the nation is unlikely to move politicians, state bureaucracies, and many citizens toward a radical rethinking of the country's political institutions and dominant identity perceptions.

I do not mean to downplay truth commissions' enormous contributions to the recovery of factual truth and the use of history as a source of critique by exposing these ambiguities and limitations. Rather, I hope to initiate a debate on the implications of today's obsession with memory and truth for political practice and legitimacy. We live in an age of international tribunals, official apologies, state-sanctioned truth commissions, human rights memorials, and victim-centered reparations programs. It is the age of "never again!" Many of us hope that acknowledgment, reflection, and repair will help us build a future society that is better, less violent, and more just than before. Yet, for all that was done, there is reason to be skeptical about whether contemporary societies, and especially their leaders, take the lessons from history seriously enough. Some postconflict societies are indeed less violent, but hardly more just. Others suffer from recurrent atrocities in part as a result of their failure to address the underlying causes of previous conflicts. It is questionable whether the victim-centered policies have brought the much-desired voice, empowerment, and healing to those who endured physical and structural violence.

Transformative potential and modest impact: truth commissions' achievements and shortcomings say a lot about how we are coming to terms with the past, what has been accomplished, and what needs to be done. This book is, therefore, an empirical and normative inquiry into the role of truth commissions in contemporary societies.

Outline of the Book

Part I sets the conceptual and theoretical framework for understanding truth commissions' place in contemporary struggles for justice, truth, and recognition. It is about the material and symbolic power relations in and around truth commissions. Chapter 1 offers a precise definition of truth commissions and provides a conceptual history by exploring commissions' evolution since the 1980s. For purposes of conceptual clarity, truth commissions should be distinguished from similar investigatory, judicial, or commemorative practices and institutions, such as parliamentary human rights commissions, courts, monitoring institutions, and nongovernmental organizations' (NGOs') truth-finding efforts. It is also important to acknowledge that some truth commissions were disbanded before they could finish their work, or that civil society initiatives to set up an official panel were frustrated in the first place. Furthermore, the idea of truth commissions has evolved over time. The procedures, methodologies, timing, and political functions of truth commissions have undergone profound changes, producing two generations of transitional commissions, as well as recent nontransitional ones.

Chapter 2 explores the politics of truth commissions, that is, the interactions and power relations between political decision makers, civil society actors, and the commissioners. Commissions are neither state bureaucracies nor civil society organizations, and they find themselves facing the task of mediating between the state and a portion of society. Their liminal position vis-à-vis the state requires a deeper understanding of state-civil society dynamics in commission processes. Furthermore, cooperative and competitive interactions among nonstate actors have become so central to contemporary truth-finding efforts that the vague notion of "civil society" should be analyzed in further detail.

The chapter challenges many of the taken-for-granted explanations about the relation of truth commissions to the state and civil society actors. Even if political elites tend to see commissions as tools of political legitimation and national reconstruction, the independent agency of commissioners often frustrates narrow political calculations. Commissions create a field of political struggle, that is to say, a site of contestation for material and symbolic power over questions of truth, memory, and justice. By its very nature the field is pluralistic, provisional, limited in its time horizon, and uncertain with respect to its expected impact on politics and society.

Chapter 3 expands the sociopolitical analysis to situate truth commission narratives in the broader context of struggles for social memory. The historical context chapters in truth commissions' final reports reflect, to some extent, the memory tropes circulating in society, but they also often redefine the terms of the societal debate. Truth commissions constantly renegotiate the tension between their authoritative status enabling them to produce the truth over the past and the need to persuade those who question their truthfulness and overall legitimacy. This tension drives many commissions to develop narrative strategies at the intersection of embeddedness and transformation with respect to the field of social memory. Truth commissions adjudicate between contending positions by confirming or rejecting certain narratives and explanations that hold sway in public debates; at times, they simply avoid the contentious issue at hand; they claim to give voice to memories and experiences that are systematically excluded from public debates; and finally, they transform the public debate by producing narratives and explanations that unsettle the terms of social engagement. A truth commission's final report may combine some or all of these positions. Furthermore, the conscious and unconscious exclusions of a truth commission narrative (that is, its silences) may be as constitutive of historiography as the written text.

Part II is devoted to empirical studies of truth commissions' effects on policy, judicial attitudes, social norms, and struggles for memory. Chapters 4 and 6 are about all transitional truth commissions, while Chapters 5 and 7 provide a detailed comparison of the Chilean and Peruvian panels based on my field research in these countries.

Chapter 4 outlines the specific ways in which truth commissions impact policy, judicial behavior, and social norms. Academic scholarship has offered various explanations for how truth commissions should or can produce changes in politics and society; yet a rigorous assessment of these explanations is lacking. In light of all transitional truth commissions that have produced a final report, I identify several causal mechanisms linking truth commissions to social and political outcomes. Some of the causal explanations of truth commission impact, despite their popularity, do not hold: commissions do not promote immediate reconciliation between victims and perpetrators, and their contribution to human rights accountability (or impunity) is limited. Truth commissions generate impact in most cases through government adoption of truth commission findings and recommendations into policy (direct political impact), and delayed policy adoption due to pressure on the part of human rights activists and victims' groups (civil society mobilization).

Chapter 5 explains why some truth commissions produce more direct political impact, while others tend to rely on civil society mobilization to generate impact. The commission creation process that sets a commission's goals, mandate, and composition is an initial factor that explains variation in terms of politically driven and socially driven impact. The more control key political decision makers (the government or a governing coalition) exercise over the design and mandate of a commission by excluding political rivals and civil society groups, the more likely that the truth commission will produce a final report in line with these decision makers' expectations, and, consequently, the more likely that impact will be through the endorsement of the commission's final report and adherence to its recommendations (direct political impact). However, the exclusionary commission creation process is likely to alienate civil society groups and reduce the likelihood of civil society mobilization around the commission. By contrast, an all-inclusive initial negotiation process tends to allow the commission to exercise greater political agency, independently of the interests and expectations of the political elite.

Chapter 5 offers in-depth comparison of two commissions, namely, those in Chile and Peru, to explain why different truth commissions elicit such divergent responses from politicians and civil society groups. A high degree of government control in the creation of Chile's National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (1990-1991) ensured greater political-institutional adherence in the post-commission setting, as the government endorsed the commission's final report and implemented major policy recommendations. However, the absence of civil society participation in the process resulted in a low degree of societal reception of the commission report and the dissolution of the Chilean human rights network in the early 1990s. In contrast, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2001-2003) was established through a participatory process in which human rights organizations set the terms under which the commission operated. The commissioners produced a comprehensive history of political violence and proposed broad recommendations and a reparations program. Successive governments by and large ignored these findings and recommendations, while victims' groups and human rights organizations continued to mobilize around the social and political goals set by the commission.

Complementing the comparison of Chile and Peru, Chapter 6 zooms out to expand the comparison to fifteen transitional truth commissions established in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This chapter offers a critical rereading of scholarly and journalistic accounts by paying specific attention to the conditions under which commissions have produced politically driven and civil society-led impact in Argentina, Uganda, Nepal, Chad, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Haiti, South Africa, Guatemala, Nigeria, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The findings confirm the influence of the commission creation process on a commission's mandate, composition, procedures, and, eventually, impact. The chapter also addresses some of the alternative explanations of variation in truth commission impact, like the type of political transition and the timing of a commission. While all of these factors seem to play a role, they influence a commission's impact only through the commission creation process and the subsequent operation of the commission.

Chapter 7 compares the historical narratives found in the Chilean and Peruvian commissions' final reports. It explains why the Chilean commission produced a relatively circumscribed memory of past violence, while its Peruvian counterpart took full advantage of its mandate to write a comprehensive social history of violence and violations. In accordance with the theoretical framework in Chapters 5 and 6, I find that the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in Chile, established under a high degree of government control in the interest of reconciliation between opposing political camps, produced a limited account of the underlying causes of political violence and violations, blaming the political radicalization and polarization of the 1960s and early 1970s for the nation's failures. By contrast, the Peruvian commission's comprehensive and politically sophisticated historical explanation proved more difficult to integrate into the political mainstream than its Chilean counterpart. The end of the chapter revisits the silences of truth commission narratives in light of the Chilean and Peruvian experiences.

Part III zooms out once again to rethink truth commission experiences in the trajectory of modernity. Chapter 8 examines how truth commissions problematize and transform the ways in which citizens of contemporary societies think and speak about historical truth, memory, justice, reconciliation, recognition (of victimhood and violations), and official historiography. Drawing on the works of Hannah Arendt, Pierre Nora, and Jürgen Habermas on factual truth, the public use of history, the ethics of national reconstruction, and collective memory, the chapter provides a new perspective on truth commissions. Truth commissions have opened a critical space to resignify the complex relations between history and memory, the past and the present, ethics and practical considerations, and nationalism and the postnational context. They have recovered basic facts about human rights violations and for the most part forced societies to rethink the violence and exclusion inherent in the political history of the nation. Consequently, commissions have produced a new dynamic whereby the state seeks to legitimize its central position between history and politics only by accepting a high degree of societal penetration into the production and diffusion of official national history. The problematization of the link between historiography and state sovereignty is evidenced by the incorporation of individual and social memory narratives into the production of truth commission histories, which occupy a quasi-official position.

The concluding remarks suggest that a truth commission's contributions should be understood not merely as a matter of policy success but also in terms of an ethical commitment to equal participation. Commissions should open a space for every person who wants to take part in reflecting on past violence and violations but should also take into account the power asymmetries resulting from the same violations in question as well as other violations and injustices that effectively force many experiences and memories into silence and oblivion. Finally, the book concludes with an overview of the lessons learned from past truth commissions in the hope of providing useful guidelines for future truth projects.

A Note on Data Sources and Methodology

I conducted a total of 107 semistructured interviews with political decision makers, NGO activists, intellectuals, victims of political violence, and their relatives in Santiago (Chile), Lima (Peru), and the city centers of Ayacucho and Huanta (Peru) between September 2008 and July 2009. I complemented the interviews with archival research on press reports, human rights documentation, and memoirs of key social and political actors. Toward this end, I conducted archival research at the Vicaría de la Solidaridad's Center of Documentation (Chile), the Information Center for Collective Memory and Human Rights (Peru), and the press archives of the Association for Human Rights (APRODEH), a leading Lima-based human rights organization (Peru). I also maintained e-mail communication with a number of experts on transitional justice.

I use interview and archival data to explain (1) how and why key actors decided to create a truth commission; (2) which actors were excluded from decision-making processes; (3) how the commission operated within the constraints of its mandate; (4) aspects of the commission's work that satisfied, surprised, legitimized, or delegitimized important political, military, and judicial institutions; (5) the extent to which the government endorsed the final report and implemented its recommendations; and (6) the degree of civil society mobilization around the commission.

I complement the original empirical research on Chile and Peru with information on all truth commissions that took place during a political transition. Commissions' own final reports contain valuable information. In addition, I use secondary sources, which include academic scholarship, journalistic accounts, and human rights reports. Some of these sources analyze broad patterns for a large number of truth commissions, such as the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Truth Commission Digital Collection, Priscilla B. Hayner's articles and books, and transitional justice databases. I also rely upon case studies, which provide in-depth information about one commission or a small number of them.

Reliance on secondary data may pose a major methodological problem if the sources are biased. For example, overreliance on the press bulletins of human rights NGOs may lead the researcher to overstate the efficacy of the human rights movement in pressuring the government and achieving policy outcomes. Media coverage might likewise suffer from pro- or anti-commission biases. Many of the personal accounts of truth commission processes come from the commissioners and the staff themselves. All these accounts need to be treated as invaluable yet partial contributions for a deeper understanding of truth commission processes.

Another major problem with conducting cross-national analysis concerns deficiencies in data. Truth commissions disband after producing the final report; therefore, they cannot monitor the social and political developments in the post-commission period. The media usually focus on the visible and dramatic aspects of truth commissions, thus hiding from view the subtle and longer-term effects of unanticipated processes during and after the commission's operation. International NGOs often transfer resources and personnel at the end of the truth commission process, which reduces their capacity to monitor truth commission impact. Academic literature has the merit of providing conceptual clarity in presenting data. However, since each scholar poses a specific research question that generates a particular set of conceptual and analytical categories, reliance on previous academic work may limit the conceptual tools and available information unnecessarily.

A further difficulty has to do with the asymmetry of available information across truth commission cases. Some commissions have attracted a large number of academic and nonacademic observers (e.g., Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and South Africa), while little has been written about others (e.g., Chad and Nepal). The perceived importance of a country in world politics makes a difference, as well as its official language—commissions of English- and Spanish-speaking countries have been covered more widely. Contextual factors are crucial, too: commissions operating in the midst of political violence (e.g., Sri Lanka) are less likely to be reported on, as journalists and NGO activists flee for security or get deported.

I acknowledge all the potential problems that might arise in my analysis due to these data deficiencies. However, instead of abandoning the task of providing a cross-national analysis of truth commissions altogether, my research strategy is to keep the information sources as varied as possible to amplify access to data, overcome bias in data collection, and achieve precision in evaluating the validity of concepts and causal relations. I incorporate data from as many resources as possible for each commission.

To justify the research methodology employed in this book, it is essential to give an account of the shortcomings of the existing methodological approaches. Chapter 4 provides an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative research methods. Large-N statistical analyses seek to isolate the truth commission effect by controlling for a number of alternative hypotheses. However, the number of commissions is relatively small compared to the large number of explanatory variables to justify statistical analysis; data collection problems abound; differences in model specification yield diametrically opposed results even for the same outcome of interest; and the dissimilar processes of transitional and nontransitional commissions (and differences between truth commissions and nongovernmental truth-finding efforts, which are lumped together for the purpose of increasing observation points) are often not taken into consideration. Other transitional justice scholars turn to case studies, either of a single commission or a small number of them. The ethnographic insights into the multilayered power dimensions pervading truth commissions and contextualized explanations of truth commission impact are the key contributions of the case study approach. The difficulty arising from case studies is the loss of a comparative framework to make sense of the conditions under which truth commissions produce changes in policy, courts, and social norms.

Therefore, I advocate a research strategy that explains truth commission impact comparatively, but without losing sight of the context-specific insights gained in case studies. I conduct comparative case studies to analyze the extent to which, and the specific mechanisms through which, a truth commission produces politically and socially driven impact. I use a process-tracing approach to examine within-case data collected in Chile and Peru. The technique of data analysis known as "process tracing" refers to a variety of procedures that perform different functions. Some scholars use it to analyze evidence in a case to build a general theory, while others test existing theories by exploring whether the observable implications of the theory fit the empirical evidence. Historical explanations based on process tracing may be formulated as general theories, or, conversely, the technique may illuminate the unique, even idiosyncratic, features of a case that resists generalization. Process tracing is closely associated with qualitative data collection methods, which leads many scholars to think that the technique promotes interpretive social-scientific epistemology, but it has been argued that process tracing is compatible with quantitative data collection, as well as a positivistic outlook on theory generation and theory testing.

I use comparative process tracing to build and assess my theory of truth commission impact because process tracing can provide comparative insights into causal mechanisms across cases, even though it is primarily a within-case analysis method. Finally, I choose both cases from Latin America to control for geographic, historical, and cultural similarities and to limit the risk of confounding the explanatory framework with unrelated causal patterns. Through process tracing, I identify the mechanisms through which the pre-commission process, that is to say, the political bargain that sets the mandate and appoints the commissioners, shapes the commission's capacity to generate impact in the post-commission process. Process tracing also helps to assess the plausibility of various causal explanations of truth commission impact (Chapter 4), and eliminate rival explanations of cross-national variations in impact, such as the nature of the democratic transition (Chapter 6).

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