Not a dumb American: Truth commissions edition

Unspeakable Truths is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Kim’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

Some time ago I got the idea in my head that I wanted to learn more about a fuzzy thing I could not quite define that was related to shifting from a terrible, warry society to a less-terrible not-war society. As with so many things, it was tricky to find books about this when I didn’t even know the name of what it was exactly. For your reference, the thing I wanted to look for was transitional justice, and all the resources on transitional justice said that if I wanted to learn in particular about truth commissions such as the famous one in South Africa, Priscilla Hayner was my gal.

Hayner’s Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity is the gold standard for an overview on truth commissions, and the book was put into a second edition in 2010. That is the edition you should probably get, if you’re interested! My library only had the 2001 edition, as did PaperbackSwap, so that was the one I read. I would be most interested to get hold of the updated one and discover new findings in the world of truth commissions, since I know there have been many more in the past decade and a bit.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned:

Apparently when the UN came to get rid of the militia government in Haiti and reinstall their president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US military forces swept into the government office and took away a whole bunch of Haitian government records. And then we refused to give them back.

Yes! And Haiti kept asking for the records because, you know, they’re theirs, and the US eventually said Haiti could have the records back, but only if they didn’t mind if we first blocked out parts of them we didn’t want Haiti to know about. (Haiti said no so we just kept them.) What? What? Is this situation ongoing? (I will never know because I don’t have access to the updated edition of this book, and the internet has been of no use to me in this regard.) If (as I suspect) it is ongoing, I’d like to remind the US government of that time Putin came by and stole Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring and we all thought Man, Putin is just the worst, and then when he invaded Ukraine we were like, Yep, that’s about what we’d expect from a dude who would steal a dude’s Super Bowl ring. And that was only a Super Bowl ring, not irreplaceable government records.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Hayner’s book was the one about naming names. Truth commissions throughout the world have had very different goals, some of them more focused on reintegrating society, others on punishing perpetrators of terrible crimes. But regardless of the main aim, a major decision that truth commissions must make is whether to say exactly who is responsible for specific crimes committed against specific people. And it is so tricky! Your first instinct is to say, yes, we want to name names, so that those terrible people cannot continue to hold positions of power because, you know:

EVIL

Except that it turns out to be much more complicated than that even if you accept the premise that some people are Evil independent of their situation (which I do not). Although it is pretty easy to identify the foot soldiers and rally enough proof from eyewitnesses to feel confident enough to say, this person took this priest up in a helicopter and dropped him into the ocean, it is much trickier to get positive evidence about who gave the commands that made that happen. So then you end up with the foot soldiers getting all the blame, and the commanders none, which is not a) fair or b) beneficial to national reconciliation. But if you name names of the higher-ups without sufficient evidence, it will kind of be your fault if a not-guilty or not-very-guilty person gets dragged out of his home by vigilantes and shot in front of his family. Or if you name names and include witness testimony as to that person’s guilt, maybe the person the witnesses named will hire his thugs to go drag your witnesses out of their houses and shoot them in front of their families.

So, okay, you don’t name names after all. All the victims’ advocacy groups are furious with you for your pusillanimity, and NGOs publish statements condemning your truth commission for caring more about protecting the rights of perpetrators than upholding the truths of victims. Nobody is dead because of you, but all the work you’ve done is now suspect. If you wanted everybody not to hate you, you maybe should have found a different job.

Hayner also includes a chapter of two case studies — Cambodia and Mozambique — of countries who have not instituted and do not want any kind of truth commission. They want to stop talking about it and move on. Cambodia held a tribunal, eventually, to try a few of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for the Cambodian genocide. And here’s what Hayner says about Mozambique, a country whose civil war was funded heavily by the apartheid government in South Africa, who believed an unstable Mozambique was in their interests:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers. When the peace agreement was signed in Rome, “word came from the top, and the war just stopped. Not another shot was fired,” described one observer. The war just “went out,” like a fire goes out, said another. From that day on, the former warring enemies have lived in peace virtually without incident.

That’s no longer fully true, incidentally, but the image of a foreign-funded war going out like a fire when it’s no longer in the interest of foreign powers to have a war in that country is going to stick with me.

If you are remotely interested in international law, human rights, or government transitions in unstable countries, I can’t recommend Unspeakable Truths enough. Every resource I’ve found on transitional justice sings its praises to the skies (so you don’t have to trust me), and I’ll be shoving this at various people in my life over the next few weeks.

(Psst, Eva! Read this! I think you would find it really interesting!)