Exposing Atrocity

Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity
, Priscilla B. Hayner. Routledge, 340 pages, $27.50.

In South Africa under apartheid, so many whites who benefited
from the system did not question the human costs--the deaths in
detention, the forced removals of hundreds of thousands of their fellow
citizens, and the laws that demeaned and attacked the very dignity of
the victims. In the years since apartheid ended, the work of South
Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has ensured that South
African children will be taught about what happened in that dismal era.
There will not be a "white history" and a "black history" but a common
history, one that has already emerged from the five-volume report of the
truth commission. Such a process, as the writer Michael Ignatieff has
observed, can "narrow the range of permissible lies."

To an American audience, it may seem self-evident that such
commissions are worthwhile. Yet in countries such as Indonesia,
Cambodia, Colombia, and Bosnia, where truth commissions are being
considered, their role is controversial and their purposes poorly
understood. In Unspeakable Truths, Priscilla B. Hayner builds on
a decade's worth of preeminent work in this field to dispel
misconceptions. Her book is motivated by what she calls "a desire to
clarify exactly what those bodies are; what they do and have the
potential to contribute; and where their limitations lie."

She succeeds admirably. In lucid style, Hayner uses her
investigations into 21 truth commissions to answer questions about the
nature and value of truth seeking, the shape of reconciliation, the
justifiable constraints surrounding truth commissions, and the
interaction between truth and justice. I particularly enjoyed her
examination of the role of truth commissions in the healing process. My
own experience in investigating war crimes in South Africa, Bosnia,
Rwanda, and Kosovo has convinced me that acknowledging human rights
violations is an essential ingredient in enabling victims to begin
healing. But many well-meaning supporters of truth commissions
misguidedly regard them as ends in themselves. They are only a starting
point, as Hayner makes clear. They are a tool for exposing violations so
frequently committed in the dark--the torturing and disappearances that
were committed with the intent to hide forever the identity of the
perpetrators. They help construct an official and irrefutable history of
the dark past.

Generalization about truth commissions, though, should be eschewed.
Chile's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in the early
1990s differed substantially from the South African one that came later.
The reach and powers of the commission in Chile were limited by
political, economic, and military powers. Such was not the case in South
Africa in 1994 and 1995 when the mission of its truth commission was
being debated. To take another example, what happened in the dark in
Chile and South Africa happened in the open in Rwanda. There were
denials and lies in the former, while there were boastful admissions in
the latter. Whether truth commissions have something new to tell the
victims depends on such contexts.

It's also important to recognize that truth commissions are not a
replacement for criminal prosecutions and need not contradict them. "On
the contrary," Hayner asserts, "commissions can, and probably
increasingly will, positively contribute to justice and prosecutions,
sometimes in the least expected ways." This has been the subject of much
controversy in Bosnia. Many nongovernmental organizations, in particular
the Inter-religious Council for Truth and Peace, have been pushing for a
truth commission. They believe that the work of the United Nations'
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague
is not touching the experiences of the great majority of the victims.

The office of the prosecutor of the UN tribunal has argued that the
taking of evidence by a truth commission would compromise witnesses and
prejudice forthcoming trials. Those in favor of a Bosnian truth
commission argue for accommodations--and accept that, unlike in South
Africa, there can be no granting of amnesty. The primacy of the UN
tribunal could be recognized as long as the prosecutor has the power to
delay the evidence of particular witnesses or the airing of certain
issues that might be the subject of investigations in The Hague. But if
the truth commission is made to wait until after the trials, it will not
likely come into existence. The latest estimate from the office of the
prosecutor is that trials will continue until 2008.

Such difficulties would seem not to bode well for truth commissions
when the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) begins work. (The
ICC will have jurisdiction to try war crimes when it is ratified by 60
nations.) Nevertheless, Hayner suggests that the potential overlap
between the ICC and national truth commissions could result in benefits
for both. She advocates a symbiotic relationship in which commission
reports could help to focus ICC investigations, provide the ICC with
local language resources, and even assist in determining whether a state
is "unwilling or unable" to investigate and prosecute a case--the test
for allowing the ICC jurisdiction over a particular defendant.

There are other fascinating and neglected issues relating to truth
commissions taken up by Hayner, such as the role of due process.
Elementary fairness dictates the need for three basic guidelines: that
individuals named in a report should be informed of the allegations
against them, that such persons should be given the opportunity to
respond to that evidence, and that the commission should state clearly
that its conclusions about individual responsibility are not findings of
criminal guilt. The latter is for the courts to determine.

She also considers the factors that encourage reconciliation. This is
a matter currently being debated in South Africa, where allegations of
racist attitudes of black and of white South Africans still dominate the
media and will surely continue for some years to come. The question of
reparations is also much debated, with the South African government
promising to address it eventually. A final report by the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission will then be submitted to President Thabo

When I first heard that Priscilla Hayner was writing this book, I had
high expectations. But given the many influential articles she has
written on the subject, I wondered whether there would be something new
for her to say. My initial expectations have been met and my doubts
allayed: I learned much from Unspeakable Truths. It offers
essential insight into how truth commissions might serve human rights
and justice.