Uncovering the Legacies of the Past: The Significance of Truth Commissions in Democratic Transitions

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Title: Uncovering the Legacies of the Past: The Significance of Truth Commissions in Democratic Transitions
Author: Shipler, Michael E.
Advisor: Isaacs, Anita J.
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of Political Science
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 1999
Abstract: The official cause of death was that he fell during a scuffle in interrogation and hit his head, sustaining fatal injuries. Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness movement and a hero of black South Africa is buried beneath a large marble slab in an unkempt cemetery in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His grave would be difficult to dig up so that no autopsy could reveal the true cause of his death. But, twenty years later, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has engaged the story of Biko's murder and has tried to uncover the truth. The four officers who were responsible for his murder were denied amnesty because, according to the ruling, the officers failed to divulge the whole truth about the circumstances of Biko's death. They did not admit to having committed any crime. 1 Steve Biko's case is one of thousands which have been raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as South Africa struggles to cope with its recent past of violent abuses of human rights. This commission is not alone in its introspective work to examine its country's national history and consciousness; it follows in the tradition of many new democracies which are struggling to build cultures which honor human rights. Many countries which have experienced periods of repression, violence, and civil war have turned to truth commissions to examine the experiences of the past. Truth commissions strive to hold the perpetrators of those abuses accountable and to spark national dialogues on the legacy of those violations. Over 15 truth commissions have been set up in countries in Latin America and Africa. Beyond the more widely known South African and Salvadoran commissions, Guatemala, Uganda, Chad, Uruguay, and Chile have all established similar structures to investigate and deal with their pasts. The truth commissions have taken many forms, ranging from organizations designed not only to investigate the extent of human rights abuses of a former regime but in some cases to establish accountability by either moving to prosecute former abusers or to force them to request amnesty and admit guilt. Truth commissions are usually established as core components of transitional governments. In many cases, they serve two major purposes; the first is to support individual victims of human rights violations and their families as they confront their pasts and heal themselves from their experiences. The second purpose is to address the political culture and institutions which supported the human rights violations of the past. Through their work with individuals, truth commissions can have an impact on both political institutions and attitudes. Using the past as a prism, they work to promote the rule of law, human rights culture, and participation within the transition to democracy. Using the vastly different experiences of Guatemala and South Africa, this paper will look at the role of the truth commissions in democratic transitions. The paper argues that truth commissions do have an impact on individual and institutional experiences in democratic transitions by using the past to engage the legacy of repression and violence. The impact that commissions have is dependent on the strength of its mandate and the structure of its process. The paper is divided into two major sections. It begins by presenting the international and domestic contexts for the establishment of truth commissions in Guatemala and South Africa. The second part examines the role of the truth commissions in each country's transition to democracy, looking at both individuals and political institutions. A chapter on legacies of terror examines the role of memory in democratization. The following chapters focuses on the commissions' contribution to consolidation of rule of law, human rights culture, and participation in the transition. The last chapter is a discussion on the commission's work on reconciliation.
Subject: Democratization -- Guatemala
Subject: Democratization -- South Africa
Subject: Truth commissions -- South Africa
Subject: Truth commissions -- Guatemala
Subject: Truth commissions
Subject: Democratization
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Shipler, Michael E.. "Uncovering the Legacies of the Past: The Significance of Truth Commissions in Democratic Transitions". 1999. Available electronically from

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