Truth-Seeking: Can we handle the TRUTH?

Knowing the truth is a right. Truth-seeking initiatives play a powerful role in documenting and acknowledging human rights violations. Truth programs or commissions aim to advance the right to truth, and provide support and advice to truth initiatives worldwide. Societies and individuals are entitled to know real facts about mass human rights violations in the wake of armed conflict or repression. All cultures recognize the importance of proper mourning to achieve personal and communal healing.

Why a Truth Commission? or in this case, an Unofficial Truth Commission?

Five firm reasons exist. Firstly, and most obviously, one is needed “to clarify and acknowledge the truth”. Moreover, it is essential “to respond to the needs and interests of victims, to contribute to justice accountability”, “in addition to outline institutional responsibility and recommend reforms”. Last, but definitely not least, a truth commission is vital “to promote reconciliation and reduce tensions resulting from past violence”. [1]

International law clearly recognizes the right of victims and survivors to know about the circumstances of serious violations of their human rights and about who was accountable for them. Society has the right to the truth.

Repressive regimes deliberately rewrite history and deny atrocities to legitimize themselves; therefore distancing their governments of what should be the consequences of such acts. Truth-seeking contributes to the creation of a historical record that prevents this kind of manipulation. It can help victims find closure by learning more about the events they suffered, such as the fate of disappeared individuals, or why certain people were targeted for abuse.

Victims of human rights abuses cannot forget such painful reminiscences, and states have a duty to preserve the memory of such crimes. The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) supports the work of truth commissions in 12 countries, working with governments, civil society, and the international community.

The Positive Power of Truth; Inconsequential Truth; Dangerous Truths

Although the “positive power of truth” seems to dominate, it is essential to “uncover the truth” [2] and take a closer look into the success and impact of truth commissions. It is necessary to highlight the not so sunny side of seeking the truth. When uncovering, it is important to recognize two victims. The first is the individual to which the case is directly related to, and the second is society. This has both positive and negative effects on both victims. Primarily, the individual may achieve the reconciliation and acknowledgement of the past which plays a key role in moving on. However, this may negatively impact him by fueling a psychological reaction which was suppressed before confrontation. Then, the society may positively be affected by finally understanding and knowing the truth; nevertheless, sometimes revealing the truth may unleash new tensions and dilemmas which may even be more harmful to the present and the future than they were to the past.

This leads to the question: Are truth commissions “good, bad, or otherwise?” This can be described through three categories of truth. There is the positive power of truth in which justice is sought and achieved through acknowledgement and reconciliation. Then there is the inconsequential truth, which suggests that truth commissions are a weak substitute for criminal trials since they lack prosecution. Moreover, sometimes acknowledgement and reconciliation is not enough. At times, the truth needs to be punished and action needs to be taken accordingly. Lastly, there are the dangerous truths, as these might pave the way to more harm that may come about from such disclosures. At times, stress is rekindled among victims and a psychological breakdown is experienced. Thus, are people ready to face the consequences of knowing?

Knowing is a human right, and any chosen path acts as a double-edged sword. Now the real question is…Can we handle the truth?


[1] Hayner, P. B. Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. Routledge, London and New York, p.p. 340. ISBN 0-415-92477-4.

[2] Brahm, E. (2007). Uncovering the Truth: Examining Truth Commission Success and Impact. International Studies Perspectives, 8(1), 16-35.

*Disclaimer: All testimonials are representative of each individual's personal experience and do not in any way or form represent the beliefs, ideologies, or values of Truth Be Told.

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