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Will the Truth Set us Free?

War crimes and truth commissions


Is a new spirit abroad concerning war crimes, or does the new century merely promise a more ornate hypocrisy? The concept of war crimes was developed by 18th-century liberal political theorists, initially codified in military manuals in the mid-1800s, and finally attained international legal status after World War II. Many observers of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals believed that the next step would be the creation of a permanent international court to prosecute, and possibly to deter, war crimes and a new category of transgressions: crimes against humanity. Four decades of Cold War animosities prevented the creation of such an institution.

Now the idea that international standards of humanity should be enforced is taking hold at national and international levels. Since 1974 approximately 18 "truth commissions" have been empaneled at the national level. Successors to autocratic regimes that pursued "dirty wars" against their own citizens, such as in Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, Uganda, and most recently, South Africa, have exposed their predecessors' crimes, believing that exposure and truth are requirements of justice, a path to greater domestic peace, and potential inoculation against recurrence of abuses. Two war-crimes tribunals are currently at work at the international level, one at the Hague investigating war crimes in Bosnia, the other in Arusha, Tanzania, focused on the Rwandan massacres.

Much work remains to be done, and some pessimism is appropriate. Some of the truth commissions-such as in Chad, where the new government appears to have adopted the murderous techniques of the old one it exposed, and in Zimbabwe, where its commission's final report remains secret-have had little lasting effect, apparently employed more to buoy up a regime than to confirm it in a new course. In hearings of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), although revelations have been pouring out, the old regime's top authorities and some of the anti-apartheid movement's loose cannons (like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela) have used eerily symmetrical justifications for their deeds and have failed to testify fully about their actions. At the Hague and in Arusha, the international tribunals have had major problems: The Bosnia trials have been thwarted by NATO's reluctance to apprehend indicted criminals, and a lack of resources and organizational chaos have hampered the Rwandan prosecutions.

Still, truth commissions haven't raised levels of criminality or caused political upheaval, as some detractors warned they might, and in many cases they have been effective elements of larger democratic transition processes and political reconciliation. TRC chairman Desmond Tutu recently said in a speech to South African journalists that his commission was contributing to healing the wounds of the nation. "In many ways it has been unbelievable. It has been almost breathtaking this willingness to forgive, this magnanimity, this nobility of spirit. . . . This process has made a contribution to reconciliation, to healing. . . ." A white woman who had been severely injured when a golf course was bombed said, "I would like to meet the perpetrator in a spirit of forgiveness. . . . I would like to forgive him. . . . I hope he will forgive me." And the African daughter of an assassinated anti-apartheid leader said, "We would like to forgive, we just want to know whom to forgive."

Internationally, the latest encouraging event occurred at the United Nations in December when states met for the fifth time to develop the statute of an International Criminal Court. Unlike in the Rwandan and Bosnian cases, the next time an international war crimes tribunal is needed it probably won't have to be created from scratch.

Truth commissions will struggle on; some war criminals will escape exposure. States will continue to thwart prosecutions and limit revelations. Piously spouting righteous self-justifications, countries will probably continue to abuse their own and others' citizens. The supply of hypocrisy will remain plentiful. However, the accumulating records of the truth commissions and the likely opening for signature next June of the Statute of the International Criminal Court demonstrate that long-gestating humanitarian norms are gaining domestic acceptance and international institutional expression. A new spirit is growing.

-by Ben Schiff

Ben Schiff is professor of politics at Oberlin.