In the wake of recent racial violence in the United States, including the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, lawmakers from the city level to the national level have proposed truth commissions as a means of accountability.
In Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sponsored a bill to establish a federal commission to study “the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color.” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation for a commission to “investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s cultural genocide and assimilation practices” against Native Americans. Local initiatives are in progress in cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco and in states like Maryland.
Academics and pundits have supported and opposed U.S. truth commissions that might not only examine racial violence, but also look into the behavior of the Trump administration. But misconceptions about commissions permeate many discussions.
So what is a truth commission?
A truth commission is a temporary, government-sponsored body that investigates political violence, the affected communities and the individuals and institutions responsible. Commissions receive testimony from hundreds, if not thousands, of witnesses. They gather and analyze documents and visit sites of violence.
Commissions conclude their work with a report detailing their findings and recommendations. Recommendations by previous commissions include changes to police and military institutions, victim compensation and memorials and museums.
Addressing misconceptions about truth commissions
Pundits have also spread a number of misconceptions about truth commissions over the years. In the United States, for instance, some analysts hold fast to the idea that commissions are for “other” countries — not developed Western democracies.
Although many commissions have been created during political transitions — when a country shifts from authoritarianism to democracy or civil war to peace — they can be (and have been) established in the West, including in Germany, Canada and the United States. In the 1980s, Congress held a commission to study the federal policy of relocating people of Japanese ancestry and holding them in internment camps during World War II.
Just because a country is already a democracy or hasn’t recently experienced a civil war doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from a commission. Our research shows that more than one-third of global commissions have been established outside of political transitions. Commissions in the United States could, for example, examine systemic racism and persistent violence against Black and Indigenous people and people of color.
Another misconception is that commissions are an alternative to “ordinary courts” and thus should not be used in the United States. This is incorrect. A key characteristic of commissions is their “complementarity” to other forms of justice such as trials, reparations and memorial projects.
Take, for instance, the Argentine commission on forced disappearances, whose files have provided key evidence for criminal trials relating to the country’s military dictatorship (1976-1983). Consider also the Guatemalan historical clarification commission which led to reparations for victims of the internal armed conflict (1960-1996). Chilean commissions supported various efforts to memorialize victims of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).
Commissions are part of a package of measures known as “transitional justice.” Different measures are designed to serve the complementary goals of truth, justice, reparations and institutional reforms.
What commissions offer that other transitional justice tools don’t is a forum to hear directly from affected communities and educate the broader public. Commissions “afford victims and their families the opportunity to paint a fuller picture,” transitional justice expert Noha Aboueldahab explains. They help societies construct shared understandings of the past and present — something that survey research shows is lacking in the United States.
Third, those who support truth commissions in the United States often believe that such processes can and should lead to reconciliation. Many past commissions have even been called “truth and reconciliation commissions.” An example is the South African truth and reconciliation commission that studied violence under apartheid as the country transitioned from white-minority rule to democracy in the 1990s.
But commissions cannot really be expected (and have often failed) to contribute to interpersonal and social reconciliation, especially when they reveal only a limited part of the truth. Commissions are simply government bodies tasked with conducting an investigation into past abuses. For this reason, experts tend to use the term “truth commissions” and leave the question of reconciliation to individual victims and perpetrators.
And a fourth and final point — commentators often overstate the success of the South African commission. As a consequence, they overestimate what similar processes in the United States could achieve. This commission focused on “gross human rights violations” such as killings and torture. It did not address how apartheid “permeated most aspects of political, social, economic, cultural and linguistic life,” as a UNICEF report notes. Similarly, the United States has yet to fully address and understand issues of systemic racism — and these are issues that a commission modeled strictly on its South African predecessor would not address.
The South African case also implied that truth can be a substitute for justice, though, as we have explained, it is not. Perpetrators of serious crimes received legal amnesty in exchange for testifying before the commission, even if they did not apologize to their victims or show remorse. This policy, like reconciliation, remains controversial in South Africa.
Truth commissions are political processes that can be undermined by unrealistic expectations or stymied because of neglect and interference. However, with strong, independent leadership, adequate resources and widespread public awareness, commissions — alongside other transitional justice measures — have the potential to help societies publicly acknowledge past injustices.
Kelebogile Zvobgo (@kelly_zvobgo) is founder and director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary and a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California.
Note: Updated Oct. 3, 2023.