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Past Book Review
BOOK REVIEW
Inclusive Transitional Justice through Truth Commissions: A Book Review
Amos Izerimana
October 12, 2018

Title: Getting the Truth out of Truth Commissions: Lessons Learned from Five Case Studies

Author(s): Johannes Langer (editor), Miguel Barreto Henriques, Pedro Valenzuela

Publisher: Editorial Bonaventuriana, 2018


Truth - one of the most contested ideas in post conflict reconstruction, is also the most important aspect of a transitional justice process. Johannes Langer, a research fellow and doctoral student of transitional justice at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies writes that truth commissions serve as first steps towards reconciliation and Coexistence. In Getting the Truth out of Truth Commissions, Langer and his colleagues Miguel Bareto Herniques and Pedro Valenzuela analyze past truth commissions in Guatemala, Peru, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Timor-Leste. They summarize the design and implementation phases of the truth commissions to evaluate their successes vis-à-vis the fundamental dimensions of truth, reconciliation, memory, and justice. Langer outlines the impact that truth commissions had on current social norms, politics, and laws of the respective countries.

The book summarizes the lessons learned from these case studies to help scholars monitor and evaluate the process of the Colombian truth commission that began in 2017. It discusses relevant concepts in the modern era of intrastate conflicts which usually require post-conflict mechanisms for national reconciliation. This is a book that challenges scholars to further study the factors that contribute to the success of truth commissions as new practices for post-conflict reconstruction. Scholars have not been able to identify any universal factors that would help evaluate all truth commissions comprehensively. Lacking successful truth commissions, although it is widely argued that the South African example is a model for success, scholars cannot claim any specific factor to apply to all contexts. Langer and his colleagues help us to begin exploring these factors through their evaluations.

According to Valenzuela, Guatemala’s process served as a fact-finding commission for the atrocities committed during the civil war. The commission focused on the systematic causes and structures that allowed brutality to prevail; however, most of the investigated issues persist. In Peru, Henriques concludes that the truth commission failed to “fully materialize into a political and social truth (p. 96).” It failed to bring the opposition together, thus failing on the dimension of reconciliation. This failure also impacted the population which was unable to reconcile with its history.

Comparable to Rwanda’s Gacaca courts, Timor-Leste included a traditional community reconciliation process with cooperation from a tribunal. Langer suggests that the process would have benefited from reaching out to more civil society organizations which would have helped with the monitoring and implementation phases thereafter. Sierra Leone’s process which also used this hybrid model had similar failures which lead to the tribunal weakening the truth commission. Langer suggests that the process lacked balance between the two mechanisms and did not gather adequate grassroots support; therefore, lacking trust from those who would have participated. Finally, the Kenyan process was unique amongst the five cases by adding socio-economic human rights violations as interests in reconciliation (p.188). However, its failure was due to lack of political will, ownership by all parties, and a controversial chairman.

All cases were unique but also had their own sets of failures. The only common factor that either hindered or helped the process was political will. However, Langer does not explore the possibility that it could be a universal factor. Per the conclusion, we should expect to see similar trends of failure in Colombia unless practitioners effectively monitor the process vis-à-vis the projected outcomes. Langer predicts that Colombia will likely be challenged by the institutional weaknesses at the local and regional levels (p. 217). Thus, he suggests a pragmatic and inclusive approach to the peace accords by establishing regional and local branches of the implementing bodies. He, however, does not discern the challenges that will evolve from attempting to satisfy the needs of victims from indigenous and marginalized communities.

Getting the Truth out of Truth Commissions emphasizes that transitional justice mechanisms should be Inclusive. Langer recognizes the fact that transitional justice can be overwhelmed with “unrealistic expectations from the policy world, the academic community, and civil society” due to its limited scope to establish inclusive societies. Therefore, he argues that establishing peace should not be contradictory but complimentary to establishing justice. By making truth commissions inclusive, stakeholders can feel heard and the process can spark a desire to reconcile after dealing with the past wounds that have further divided the community. Inclusion must however begin by being representative within the chosen commissioners. Colombia must carefully ensure this inclusion if it is to be successful. To this end, inclusivity could be one universal factor that helps evaluate the success of a truth commission.

Transitional justice should focus on providing a path towards social justice. Truth commissions are helpful in this regard because they facilitate conversations that form collective narratives at the national and grassroots levels. They unveil the hidden structural factors of the conflict through truth-telling. This paradigm shift from truth to narrative is crucial to establishing national reconciliation, as Langer displays. The narrative can then shape the society and the community’s approach to ensure inclusive local and national policies. Nevertheless, the challenge of identifying a collective truth persists and remains unclear to what extent it could be used to form a narrative that favors one group’s desired society. A book which suggests an inclusive transitional justice should include criticism on the power dynamics that have failed to truly reconcile nations. This book fails in that regard. Getting the truth out of truth commissions should mean establishing an inclusive narrative through implementation processes. This is a challenge for peacebuilding scholars to consider amidst new innovations in post-conflict reconstruction.

Amos Izerimana is a dual masters degree student of Conflict Resolution and Coexistence at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management (Brandeis University); and of International Law and Human Rights at the UN-mandated University for Peace. Amos’ research interests include transitional justice, Intergenerational Dialogue, International Human Rights law with a special focus on refugees’ rights, Peace Education, and Diaspora Integration for Peacebuilding.


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