Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are led by state and non-state actors involved in implementing non-violent constructive dialogue between victims and perpetrators of human rights violations and violence to initiate and achieve healing and reconciliation.
Problems and Purpose
Racism and racial injustice have been a part of human history instigated by the beliefs, attitudes, and actions resulting from categorizing individuals and groups according to phenotype (physical appearance), heritage, or culture. At its extremes, this has included genocide, slavery, and the colonization of Indigenous peoples. The history of some societies features racial injustices that involve gross human violations and armed conflicts. This has resulted in both physical and mental harm, the destruction of properties, and death, which has created rifts or disunity between parties involved and subsequently hindered the growth of citizens and the development of societies. Also, “the effects of historical trauma are intergenerationally transmitted even as the structural mechanisms that created them remain in place, creating a plurality of disadvantage for present-day generations.”
The impact of racial injustices impedes development in societies. As a result, the influence of TRCs cannot be undermined in addressing the historical legacy of racial injustice and finding ways to move forward. TRCs as global human rights interventions seek to transform communities affected by oppression and violence through restorative justice principles. The main objective of TRCs is to foster reconciliation rather than retributive justice and is therefore different from a court-like structure that emphasizes punishment.
Origins and Development
Since the first well-known TRC in Argentina in 1983, TRCs have been conducted in various forms across various continents. Over fifty TRCs are recorded as of today. In 1995, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa was identified as the first commission to hold public hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were heard.
TRCs have since been internationally acclaimed as an innovative model for building peace and fostering the accountability of actors involved in human rights violations.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Every TRC has a unique participant selection and recruitment process. The selection and number of participants are dependent upon the case being treated (historical event of human violations and violence) and the location. Three groups are typically involved: victims, perpetrators, and the government. The perpetrators are classified into one of four categories: individual perpetrators, group perpetrators, corporate perpetrators, and government perpetrators.
The activities of TRCs are guided and directed by Commissioners selected through an open countrywide nomination process and publicly interviewed by an independent selection panel comprising of representatives of the government, civil societies, and religious bodies. They delegate researchers, investigators, and statement-takers to help collect extensive, detailed information from victims, perpetrators, and witnesses.
In sharing their experiences and roles within the historical event, these groups typically engage in interviews, provide statements, and offer evidence. To ease communication, testifiers are often permitted to communicate in the language most convenient for them.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
The TRC process takes place within a minimum of one year but is subject to extension based on commissioners’ requests. The process entails uncovering the truth, identifying the culprits, analyzing the extent of abuses, and fostering new methods of healing and reconciliation. The crimes considered are classified into three categories: Egregious Domestic Crimes, Gross Violations of Human Rights Law, or Serious Humanitarian Law Violations. Some of the Egregious Domestic Crimes include sexual assault, fraud, murder, misappropriation of public funds, and kidnapping. In most cases, the Gross Violations of Human Rights Law committed by state actors include enslavement, genocide, torture, sexual slavery, unlawful prosecution, and imprisonment. Lastly, Serious Humanitarian Law Violations include mutilation, hostage-taking, terrorism, illegal executions, child labor, cruel treatment, and torture.
This commences with information-gathering through interviews and statement-taking by victims, perpetrators, and witnesses, followed by individual and thematic hearings. Counseling and psychological aid are accessible before, during, and after the hearings. Likewise, protective measures are typically taken to conceal children's identities, such as the absence of media or video coverage. A witness protection program is set up to handle trauma, stigmatization, neglect, shame, ostracization, and possible threats to life.
The next step entails the investigation and validation of testimonies by the Inquiry Unit. Not limited to this, this truth-seeking process involves the research of data from various sources. This ensures the construction of an impartial historical record of the past and aids in drafting a reparations policy.
The perpetrators typically discuss their involvement in the atrocities by recounting human rights violations and seeking the forgiveness of victims. In most cases, the offer of amnesty to perpetrators increases truthful recollections and testimonies and promotes openness and transparency. This process offers an avenue of healing for victims.
A TRC's final task involves the release of a final report, including recommendations to sustain unity, peace, reconciliation, and prevent a re-occurrence of past events. As democratic innovations, TRCs tackle human rights violations by highlighting the causes and proffering recommendations to aid reconciliation and peaceful co-existence among all parties involved.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The widely-acclaimed acceptance and presence of TRCs in various societies can be attributed to the methods of healing that they promote. They ensure that their actions are guided by a final objective of “investigating, identifying the antecedents and determining responsibility for egregious domestic crimes, gross human rights violations, and serious humanitarian law violations.”
TRCs have historically been faulted for rehashing the trauma of victims, which has psychological and emotional impacts. Some victims prefer to avoid recounting their gruesome experiences. Also, the level of influence of a TRC is restricted by different bureaucratic processes in various countries. In some cases, TRCs’ influences conclude at the release of a final report without the opportunity to implement the recommendations provided in the report. This is otherwise known as “TRC calls to action,” which, as the name suggests, tasks the government to implement recommendations to offer lasting solutions to the issues raised.
The shortcomings of TRCs do not diminish their importance in eliciting “admissions of wrongdoing and public apologies and tangible steps towards a more equitable community.” The prevalence of horrific human violations, racial injustice, and armed conflicts affirms the need for TRCs. That is, “as long as unresolved historic injustices continue to fester in the world, there will be a demand for truth commissions.”
 Maria Svetaz et al, “The Traumatic Impact of Racism and Discrimination On Young People and How To Talk About It,” in Reaching Teens: Strength-Based, Trauma0Sensitive, Resilience-Building Communication Strategies Rooted In The Positive Youth Development by Kenneth Ginsburg and Zachary McClain (Eds.) https://www.seattlechildrens.org/globalassets/documents/clinics/diversity/the-traumatic-impact-of-racism-and-discrimination-on-young-people-and-how-to-talk-about-it.pdf
 David Androff, “A case study of a grassroots truth and reconciliation commission from a community practice perspective,” Journal of Social Work (2016), Vol. 18(3) 273–287, https://doi-org.libaccess.lib.mcmaster.ca/10.1177/1468017316654361
 Desmond Tutu, “Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Truth-and-Reconciliation-Commission-South-Africa
 “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia,” Vol I: Findings and Determinations, 25.
 Larry Schooler, “After Floyd killing, we need a truth and reconciliation commission on race and policing,” June 14, 2020, USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/06/07/floyd-killing-truth-reconciliation-commission-race-police-column/3147541001/
 Bonny Ibhawoh, “Do Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Heal Divided Nations,” January 23, 2019, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/do-truth-and-reconciliation-commissions-heal-divided-nations-109925