Truth commissions become victims of their own success, cautions UN expert on transitional justice

GENEVA (13 September 2013) – United Nations Special Rapporteur on transitional justice Pablo de Greiff today cautioned that truth commissions -a usual response in transitional situations- increasingly face a number of important challenges, and risk becoming victims of their own success.

“The truth about atrocities must carry consequences,” Mr. de Greiff told the UN Human Rights Council in his latest report*, “but the implementation of commissions’ recommendations is severely lacking and therefore victims are left with partial, if any redress.”

The human rights expert 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 these challenges are overly broad mandates, flawed choices of commissioners, and insufficient and unreliable funding streams.

The Special Rapporteur remarked 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.

“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.”

The expert further highlighted 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.

Pablo de Greiff was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the first Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence in 2012. A human rights expert from Colombia, Pablo de Greiff has extensive professional and academic expertise on transitional justice issues. He has been the Director of Research at the International Center for Transitional Justice since 2001. As a Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. For further information, log on to:

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