Families expressed the view that the most reparative act the authorities could undertake was to reveal the truth about the disappeared. They were concerned that compensation through reparation payments was designed to divert families from pursuing the “truth about their loved ones” .
Therefore, in this specific case, the value of truth and acknowledgement for victims and their families cannot be emphasised enough. The first thing needed in addressing their needs was ensuring they were known, acknowledged and “part of the transitional justice agenda” . It was also clear the value of truth takes precedence over the need for judicial intervention which has dominated discussions of transitional justice While research shows that as long mechanisms do not exclude the possibility of future prosecutions, they would be acceptable to victims , it is important to note there are mechanisms that can deliver truth decoupled from a judicial process such as truth commissions.
Truth commissions, by name, indicates to deliver the truth for the purpose of assisting a wounded nation to heal . Popkin and Roht state the goals of seeking the truth include; establishing an authoritative record, helping victims, and promoting accountability , however, whether this is victim-centred must be analysed. Erin states the value of truth commissions includes opening up and acknowledging the past however it must be stated this is not a risk-free process. Firstly, the truth that is produced is monolithic, meaning there should be no expectation of producing a single account of events. This multiplicity problem can turn into a subjectivity problem as different versions tell different stories and assign blame and victimhood to different parties. Moreover, this subjectivity fails to wholly comprehend and communicate the experiences of victims who have lived through the conflict. This can be evidenced by the fact that often the truth victims and others want to hear is not the forensic, historical or dialogic truth, but the psychological truth which unfortunately gets lost in the translation.
Truth commissions’ goal in helping victims can be argued to be victim centred, Minow even states this as the main purpose of establishing truth commissions . However, the value of this to victims shouldn’t be overstated because as Daly notes, many are not aware of the truth commission mechanism with only a small fraction of the world’s victims participating in such truth-seeking processes . Thus, this affects which truths are being told and the less the percentage of victims heard by the commission the less likely it could potentially have a positive impact. Moreover, where retributive justice is unlikely – due to factors such as the criminal justice system is weak, the truth may give no measurable benefit for victims. For these victims, the truth may be a luxury, almost a psychological support/relief mechanism. The point is not to abandon the truth, but governments should only advocate the truth when the population prioritises a truth-seeking process over essential basic needs.
The value of truth in terms of accountability is that it can potentially pave the path towards prosecution for those named in truth commission reports, as has been the case in Chile . Brahm, notes while truth commissions do not subject perpetrators to legal punishment, “they represent some form of accountability for human rights abuses when historically this has been rare”. This could be due to the fact truth commissions can reach a wider range of victims than long trial procedures which in turn can lead to pressure for change and educate the masses. Thus, the impact of truth commissions might be realized at a minimum in terms of acknowledegment and healing . However, a few convictions do not prove that the truth produces accountability. For example, in South-Africa many high-level prosecutions ended in acquittals due to a lack of evidence , this can cause serious trauma to victims as they may feel the suffering has been for nothing and perpetrators are walking away unpunished. In essence, this essay agrees with Aldana who noted other than criminal prosecutions, lesser sanctions, such as apologies and confessions in the truth commission mechanisms, can never fully satisfy victims’ demands for accountability . Thus, the truth only provides accountability where it can at the least contribute to the possibility of a criminal prosecution, something which has been a rarity historically. Another historical rarity which will now be analysed is the lack of attention paid to the emotional needs of the victims.
Prioritisation of civil and political rights over socio-economic and emotional rights of victims
Doak notes transitional justice discourse has emphasised political and civil wrongs at the expense of more pressing socio-economic concerns this essay agrees and argues this prevents transitional justice mechanisms from being fully victim-centred. This can be proved by truth commissions and their common offer to perpetrators for amnesties from prosecution in exchange for their testimony. This was especially the case in the South-African truth and reconciliation commission (SATRC) where amnesties were handed out in exchange for the truth . Proponents of truth commissions argue justice may need to be sacrificed to ensure instrumental goals such as peace, stability and avoidance of civil war Yet these are clearly more state-centred goals rather than victim-centred. Proponents further argue that the SATRC attempted restorative justice by granting amnesties in the name of reconciliation which seeks the truth of the past in order to build a different future. Gibson concurs stating amnesties made coexistence and tolerance more likely .
However, this essay disagrees because amnesties undermine the rule of law and states’ legitimacy to address victims’ needs for retributive justice especially as Aldana points out when such feelings are “shared widely by the public” . This was clear in South Africa’s case where the perceived lack of justice in the TRC got pointed out and as Howse states there were calls for 'No Amnesty, No Amnesia, Just Justice' . Clearly the reference to ‘just justice’ is in relation to retributive justice. Thus, not only do truth commissions deny justice but it also deprives victims, as by granting amnesty it robs victims of their opportunity to chase their own justice through criminal/civil courts. Furthermore, amnesties guarantee impunity, this can frustrate the victims further undermining the possibility of reconciliation. Victims’ emotional needs can be seen to be further frustrated as demonstrated below.
Emotional Needs of Victims
Proponents of transitional justice mechanisms, especially truth commissions have praised it for allowing victims to speak in a public environment dedicated to documenting the suffering and locating individual trauma. Raquel has pointed out knowing one’s suffering is not a lonely experience can allow individuals to “move beyond trauma” . Moreover, Minow states, therapists working with survivors, have experienced the process of rendering testimony a vital “element of healing” . On the other hand, Doak has stated, “scant regard has been paid to the psychological impact of testifying either before... criminal trials and truth commissions ”. Robins further notes in the Nepal missing cases victims had little access to medical facilities and especially psychosocial support which was needed as a result of the disappearances. This clearly reflects the narrowness of transitional justice and the lack of ‘victim-centredness’. Moreover, in countries where the possibility of retributive justice is slim due to factors such as the “crimes are too big” it means very few truth commissions have the resources to ensure that the truth heals rather than hurts . Hence, it’s arguable it might be more beneficial for some to forget and move on.
However, this essay agrees with Herman who notes, “repressing memory can have a deleterious psychological impact ”, the truth in these circumstances can rekindle anger and trigger posttraumatic stress . The psychological burden, therefore, cannot be undervalued, as it’s directly proportional to increased social costs. Truth commission’s lack the resources to fully investigate the outcomes for all victims. This coupled with the fact individuals respond to psychological trauma and to the truth commissions in different ways shows transitional justice mechanisms have a long way to go to be victim centred as victims ‘emotions cannot be measured, and they need more focus, now more than ever.
Most importantly psychological impacts shouldn’t be classified into collective records, they can be personal experiences which cannot be solved through broad processes that prioritise broader objectives. For instance, in the SATRC Trauma Centre, it was estimated 50-60% experienced serious psychological problems after testifying and while partial truth helped some, for others its re-opened old wounds and ignited a sense of anger. Therefore, to legitimise transitional justice processes in the eyes of the victims one ought to more carefully analyse and think about the emotional harms suffered by them and not just look at trauma as the lens through which to understand societies emerging from mass violence. As Robins notes, “Victimisation clearly has the potential to be accompanied by emotional and psychological impacts, but transitional justice has yet to make psychosocial support to victims central to its practice” . Thus, to be more victim-centred transitional justice must look to alternative approaches such as psychological impacts and combine this with other processes in what this essay calls a multimethod approach.