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Truth Recovery in Northern IrelandCritically Interpreting the Past$

Kirk Simpson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078620

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078620.001.0001

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Truth commissions and dealing with the past

Truth commissions and dealing with the past

(p.31) 2 Truth commissions and dealing with the past
Truth Recovery in Northern Ireland

Kirk Simpson

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter features an analysis of the flaws of truth commissions based on a detailed theoretical examination of the contested notions of ‘truth’, and the moral and political justification for the creation and implementation of the machinery of state-sponsored historical enquiry, in order that instructive lessons for critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland might be learned. It also seeks to outline the ways in which ostensibly ‘objective’ legal discourse has colonised the truth and justice project in transitional societies. This supposedly impartial template is in some cases the product of subjective and calculated political reflection, and it has often been imposed and used in a cynical fashion by governments and policymakers to obscure the ways in which post-violence partisan political dynamics manipulate and distort the possibilities for the recovery of inclusive and diverse truth.

Keywords:   truth commission flaws, state-sponsored historical enquiry, Northern Ireland, transitional societies, partisan political dynamics

Introduction: ‘Dealing with the past’

Following the contextual and thematic material on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, this chapter offers a critique of structurally and theoretically weak approaches to truth recovery and their institutional manifestations, in particular the predominant mechanisms for dealing with the past in post-conflict societies — truth commissions. The current trend for truth commissions in transitional societies did not begin in South Africa in 1995, under the terms of the South African ‘Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act’. Whilst the visual and aural dimensions of that process (it was partially televised and also broadcast on the radio) certainly lent an air of unprecedented familiarity with a particular mode of conflict resolution to observers both domestically and throughout the world, the concept of truth commissions actually pre-dates considerably the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), most notably in Latin America, where the ‘reconciliation’ dimension of the model was not so heavily emphasised (Hayner, 1994; Rotberg and Thompson, 2000). It is important to contend at the outset that many truth commissions, in various locales (some of which are discussed in this chapter) have been cynically used as examples of effectively dealing with the past by both domestic governments and members of the seemingly ubiquitous and often vaguely defined ‘international community’. This chapter therefore features an analysis of the flaws of truth commissions based on a detailed theoretical examination of the contested notions of ‘truth’, and the moral and political justification for the creation and implementation of the machinery of state-sponsored historical enquiry, in order that instructive lessons for critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland might be learned. The political technology and mechanics of these processes are particularly important, because they are consonant with an approach to truth telling and history in which alternative truths are regarded (p.32) as potentially destabilising by some transitional regimes, and thus disregarded or suppressed. In seeking to repair the wrongs of the past with undue rapidity, post-conflict administrations can risk exacerbating the social and cultural marginalisation of the victims of political violence.

This chapter also seeks to outline the ways in which ostensibly ‘objective’ legal discourse has colonised the truth and justice project in transitional societies. This supposedly impartial template is in some cases the product of subjective and calculated political reflection, and it has often been imposed and used in a cynical fashion by governments and policymakers to obscure the ways in which post-violence partisan political dynamics manipulate and distort the possibilities for the recovery of inclusive and diverse truth. This is an abdication of the responsibilities incumbent upon those tasked with transitional rebuilding to create a climate in which consensual normative barriers are established that protect those victimised by political violence.

The political justification of truth commissions

One of the most common and obvious political and moral justifications for the use of truth commissions in post-conflict societies is that they offer a non-adversarial, temporary, non-judicial and non-combative method of resolving difficult questions about violent pasts (Hayner, 2001; Andrews, 2003). Philosophically, this might appear relatively elementary, but this somewhat simplistic rationale obscures the multi-layered and multifarious complications of truth commissions, and indeed any form of truth recovery process. The core question, certainly as many politicians, governments and policymakers often view it is: does the construction of a new post-conflict political order require the totalising moral legitimisation offered by manageable, government-sponsored, reductive and typological truth commissions (Wilson, 2001)? Key examples here include Chile and Argentina. In both countries, as is discussed further in the next chapter, truth processes produced final reports that codified and diluted the emotive overload of victims’ stories by ‘shrinking’ testimony into what one might suspect were pre-determined categories of representation (Enselaco, 1994; Grandin, 2005). Rather than grappling unsuccessfully with processes that are founda-tionally problematic in search of a ‘solution’, transitional societies such as Northern Ireland should be compelled to wrestle in an ongoing fashion with deeper, critically inspired questions: namely, how can they best access the multiple and competing ‘truths’ of the past without resorting to the imposition of universalist and conformist historiographies, and concurrently avoid the perils of post-modern pastiches of unduly relativist analyses that treat all narratives as equal? Certainly, a strong theoretical foundation and framework can address this question, and in this chapter the beginnings of a philosophical and critical synthesis that is capable of providing the fundamentals of a (p.33) truth recovery process that can be utilised effectively in transitional societies is outlined, enabling victims to deal with the legacy of emotional, psychological and political annihilation.

Truth commissions can have significant social, cultural and political power. Governments, policymakers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the general public in transitional societies often invest great hope in the capacity of truth processes to construct post-conflict ‘meaning’, and consequently make sense of the chaos of political violence. Truth commissions in their current forms, however, arguably rely on positivist epistemology and the possibility of discovering some form of objective reality — a master narrative of the past — beneath a limited number of layers of perpetrator or state obfuscation (see Amstutz, 2004). These master narratives can replicate understandings of conflict as being the ineluctable result of macro-level ‘master cleavages’ rather than a complex set of factors and nuanced intersections between individual and collective agency. The weaknesses of objectivist metanarratives as sufficiently rigorous historical theoretical concepts and tools with which to interrogate the past have not been sufficiently acknowledged. No matter how hard and how often policymakers appeal to (and proselytise about) the supposed neutrality of ‘the law’ of truth commissions, they cannot discount the significance of the erosion of the credibility of unitary conformist narratives of the past amongst social scientists and theoretical historians (Fulbrook, 2002). The analytic preoccupation with truth commissions as being of policymaking pre-eminence encourages false and insidious logic that the state or its institutions have a monopoly on accessing and manipulating ‘objective truths’ of the past, and that they seek to do this in a victim-centred way (Phelps, 2004). This technically enables post-conflict regimes — or truth commissions, as their willing or inadvertent ciphers — to produce, or fabricate, ‘history’ (Edkins, 2003). That they seek to do this, ostensibly unproblematically and self-confessedly via straightforward processes of truncated testimony and codification, negates the value of alternative theoretical understandings of the past and allows for inadvertent and deliberate misrepresentations of victims’ experiences. Truth commissions can unfortunately suggest to confused and divided citizenries that the political catastrophes of the past, and in particular the rationalisations for mass violence and the use of political terror, should be analysed through the political and historical prisms of ‘new’ post-conflict states or administrations. As part of this warped political dynamic, the new or reconstructed state and its transitional institutions can attempt to command mythical and unchallengeable power. The emotional and psychological landscape of the post-conflict society is conveniently ignored, or analysed in deterministic fashion, by the reports of these commissions, as in Chile (Zalaquett and Berryman, 1993; Enselaco, 1999; Ni Aolain and Turner, 2007).

(p.34) Fearful of emotional overload and its possible political ramifications, the reports of some of the most high-profile truth commissions have fallen victim to this paradigmatic and highly objectivist mode of analysis, diluting the narratives of victims and draining them of both their symbolism and their power (Ross, 2003; Wilson, 2003). There is consensus, at least rhetorically, that violent societies emerging from conflict need to reckon with their past (Hastrup, 2003). However, there is also fear, particularly among former perpetrators of political violence who have become prominent political actors in the post-conflict context, that such reckoning will remould the state in ways that are unpalatable for power elites, or that the unpacking of history will allow the disempowered and disaffected to discover their voice (Felman and Laub, 1992; Phelps, 2004). Truth recovery, in conceptual terms, should allow for the subjugated to find language and to discover, albeit slowly and with understandable trepidation, ways of articulating the unimaginable horror of their experience (Kristeva, 1982; Caruth, 1996). However, this is threatening not only for those implicated in the evils of the past, but also for many of those citizens unaffected directly by political violence, who can usefully be labelled the ‘comfortable majority’.

‘Comfortable majorities’ are often, arguably, content for victims of political violence to be ‘gagged’ in order to hasten peaceful transition. Policymakers with political agendas warn that the uneven surface of post-conflict transitions requires careful diplomatic footwork and state-craft (Chapman and Ball, 2001). Whilst this might undeniably be the case, particularly in some contexts, the activation of the politically motivated gag in which any form of alternative or dissonant narrative of the past is muted is as distasteful as it is impolitic and foolish. One encouraging, extremely pertinent and recent example of this logic being repudiated has been the newly announced and historic ‘memory law’ in Spain (Ley de la memoria historica de Espaaa (Law on the Historical Memory of Spain)). This law is related to the legacy of the Franco era of authoritarian government (for an in-depth discussion of the Spanish civil war see Beevor, 2004). One of the most egregious ‘gags’ — Spain’s ‘collective’ decision to turn its back on the past after Franco’s death (‘the pact of forgetting’) — was attacked by Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister at the time of writing. He made it one of his personal objectives to lift the veil of silence surrounding the victims of Franco’s human rights abuses. The Law of Historical Memory was passed by the Spanish parliament on 31 October 2007. It outlines the removal of some archaic Franco government laws that still linger in the Spanish statute books, and also makes considerable efforts to deal with the symbolism of both political change and remembrance. This is an important semiotic consideration. The removal of the remaining iconography of Franco from public buildings could be argued to be a token gesture, but it sends out a strong message that the commemoration of a fascist dictator is no longer acceptable (p.35) within a modern democracy. The fundamental importance of this retrieval of social and political memory cannot be downplayed (although there is an argument, that is not particular to Spain, for allowing such iconography of totalitarianism to fall into a permanent state of disrepair and eventual ruination, which would be a damning and visual indictment of public disdain — this is discussed more fully in Chapter 5). Additionally, the memory law suggests opening previously sealed archives for public inspection; and also proposes that the Spanish state makes concerted and supervised efforts to exhume those graves where many are thought to have been executed and dumped by Francoist death squads (see Ferrandiz, 2006). This has not been without political difficulty. Many on the Spanish right are complaining about what they perceive to be the ‘hegemony of the defeated’ and the creation of a new hierarchy of victimhood, which they believe is being imposed by a socialist government to replace the supposed ‘agreement of all’ that had previously been argued — largely unconvincingly — to have been the strength of the Spanish transition from autocracy to democracy.

Some have questioned why, given that the Franco period ended in 1975, Spain has begun to face its past now. This is not a sustainable basis for the critique of a society that is brave enough to confront the destructive legacy of violence. The reasons for attempting to deal with the past in any context are manifold, and can involve a complex interaction between private, highly individuated personal desires and collective political and social needs. Perhaps most crucially, although political regimes and governments might change, the deleterious effects of past atrocities are not lessened by the censure of victims’ stories or the passing of time, particularly as history then has to be continually constructed and reconstructed in the social quarantine of the present by victims. As Dimitrijevic argued so cogently (2006: 369) ‘The consequences of the past deny the possibility of choice between forgetting and remembering: the character of their presence is such that a decision to promote a policy of forgetting would only mean promoting refusal to confront reality’. Permitting victims of violence the space and time to recount their stories in public is therefore not a denial of the need for a new political order (though naturally it will slow that process somewhat), and nor does it necessarily threaten the legitimatisation process of new regimes. Rather, it contributes to informed critical perspectives amongst citizens that are actually conducive to stronger democratisation processes. This is precisely why truth commissions, often venerated as the fast-acting panacea for the problems of troubled history, have not been as effective as people might have expected in alleviating the burden of violent histories (Humphrey, 2000; Booth, 2001). Internally, truth commissions (and their outcomes) can be shaped and moulded by domestic governments and policymakers keen to avoid controversy or anxious to ensure that they do not implicate their own former (or even current) members as perpetrators of human rights crimes. (p.36) Similarly, the unfortunate conflation of truth commissions with reconciliation has added unnecessary baggage to an already overburdened concept (Humphrey, 2002).

Truth recovery and reconciliation

Whilst there is an undoubted and extremely desirable relationship between truth recovery and reconciliation, too often it has been the case that reconciliation (or some notion thereof) has been advanced at the expense of the recovery of genuine truth, in all its complexity. In addressing the obvious need to provide ‘answers’ about the past, policymakers can cynically exploit the notion that such inspection must necessarily result in the creation of a sanitised final ‘product’ — an imposed construction of the past that not only elides the crucial value of atomised individualised stories and experiences, but which actively encourages banal, depersonalised and disconnected readings of history (Das et al., 2001). The facile notions of ‘forgiveness’ implicit within such uncritical interpretations of the past often lead to legally mandated amnesty, and also can render victims further marginalised if they do not want to forgive or if they disagree with amnesty. Additionally, within such insipid attitudes to the legacy of violence, the anguish and despair of victims are not afforded equal space in the ‘grand narratives’ to which people are expected to subscribe in the ambiguously defined interests of peace. New governments can invoke iconic imagery of halcyon or imagined pasts in their attempts to formulate some sort of architecture and apparatus of post-conflict subservience amongst the citizenry (Bevan, 2007). The conformist ‘memory narratives’ that invariably emerge from the reports of truth commissions contain subtexts that paradoxically urge forgetting in the interests of the ‘greater good’ (Eber and Neal, 1999; Nytagodien and Neal, 2004). The common refrain of ‘never again’ (in Argentina, Germany, El Salvador and Chile) speaks of the need for citizens actively to inhibit the emergence of cultural and political conditions conducive to mass violence, but in so doing it fails not only to satisfy this objective, it also erases victims from the present, and can consign them to a political landscape of recollection that is hermetically sealed. In this context, however resistant victims’ memory is, they face an increasingly uphill struggle to avoid irreparable peripheralisation.

Truth commissions, in principle, ostensibly allow for individual testimony, to a greater or lesser extent. However, instead of operationalising a subsequent process of collectivisation via the production of reports that by their very definition distil this testimony into ‘packages’, or deciding that one particular group of victims will serve as a paradigmatic and authentic example of the experience of suffering during the conflict era, policymakers should cease attempting to make fractured and often seemingly anarchic narratives cohere to an imagined or invented past. There must be a shift in (p.37) memory narratives from the concerns of nation-states to the singularity of individual experience (Jackson, 2002). Many governments and policymakers succeed only in healing the tangible manifestations of the underlying social and political malaise of contested memory in post-conflict contexts. New regimes, it seems, would rather construct tales of pre-conflict heroic pasts than fight for cultural and social space with the chaotic and visceral stories of the victims of violence (Edkins, 2003; Torpey 2003). Truth commissions become, for governments and policymakers, useful ways of expeditiously pacifying the disaffected. They purport to offer representation and empowerment to the marginal, and to promote individual subjectivities at the expense of collective ones.Yet from Chile to Guatemala, truth commissions have been unwieldy social and political experiments conducted in conditions that could not be regarded in any way as conducive to discovery of ‘the truth’ or ‘truths’. As weakened or weakening nation-states realise that their entire ideological edifices are at risk, they strive to locate the experience, remembrance and legacy of political violence as socially aberrant, outside the ‘typical’ realm of cultural and political behaviour. This is a re-imagined, expurgated version of human history, especially in the twentieth century, when the human cost of war, nuclear proliferation and tyranny was almost unimaginable. Sadly, the truth commission has become an instrument in this beautification of evil. It has become a structuralist, functional device with which unscrupulous policymakers can claim with some pomposity to have ‘solved’ the unanswered questions of the past, and it emboldens them to proceed with unseemly haste with their project of ‘moving on’ or ‘closure’. The almost constant reiteration of these stock phrases is in itself is a most unfortunate and amateur misinterpretation of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic psychotherapy (see Storr and Bishop, 1999; Phillips, 2006). Victims are rarely, if ever, offered the chance to recount their stories — however long they take — and have them formally documented and disseminated widely throughout the country or region. They are denied the chance to unburden themselves of the tragedy that has haunted them, in many cases for decades. In South Africa, the storytelling process took place in a setting that was, to all intents and purposes, legalistic (Ross, 2003). As a trade-off for the right to tell their story, victims were expected to agree to the insertion of amnesty clauses for self-confessed perpetrators of political violence. Critics will argue that amnesty was not granted as widely as has been popularly perceived, yet the point of principle here is that victims were again expected to make concessions in the interests of some nebulous notion of reconciliation (see Zur, 1994).

As governments’ abilities to manage divergent discourse about the past weakens, they become increasingly keen to maintain a tight grip on the production of cultural and political meaning (Trouillot, 1995). Truth commissions have therefore become a popular mechanism for ‘dealing with (p.38) the past’ in the majority of post-conflict contexts (Kritz, 1996; Hayner, 2001; Wilson, 2003).There is undoubtedly a coherent philosophical, rational moral and political logic for engineering some way of retrieving social memory, particularly when it pertains to political violence (this argument will be unpacked in greater detail in Chapters 3 and 4). The key problem is finding a way of mastering the past by confronting it (as was attempted, at least to some extent, in post-war West Germany (see Niven, 2002)), rather than trying to repress it via processes which purport to be representative of suffering but which actually bury victims’ stories beneath layers of governmental bureaucracy, or which essentialise all victims as the same. In offering a critique of truth commissions, therefore, it is important that the need for excavating the past is not rejected. Instead, there should be concerted efforts by governments and policymakers to advocate processes of truth recovery that make genuine attempts at empowering victims, and which consequently can offer prospects for effective conflict resolution, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for ‘new’ societies that are reliant upon grand (and often invented) narratives and histories as the foundation stones for their post-conflict political programmes.

The legacy of political violence

Political violence has inscribed the memory of pain and suffering upon the very cultural, political and social fabric of transitional societies (Caruth, 1995; Antze and Lambek, 1996). The legacy of such violence resists superficial attempts by policymakers or elite contesting groups to simplify the process of redressing past wrongs.Violence possesses power so damaging and potent that it is sufficiently strong to re-injure, restigmatise and retraumatise its victims on an almost daily basis (Hamber, 2003; Donnan and Simpson, 2007). This is the reality that truth commissions must confront. The emotional wounds of victims, particularly if they are inadequately represented and expressed via public processes of storytelling, are clear insignia of the ways in which power dynamics can be reconstituted in transitional societies and continue to exclude their dissonant narratives of suffering. Political violence should not be compartmentalised as part of some sealed historiography, yet the fear is that many truth commissions, via the production of ‘final reports’ (and the word ‘final’ cannot be dismissed here, as it is an important semantic consideration suggesting total closure, even if it sometimes used informally rather than formally on official documents), are seeking to do exactly that.

The legacy of political violence and the suffering of victims persist beyond the mere mechanics of truth commissions, especially those that try to distil the divergent stories of individuals into reductive typologies for the purposes of non-problematic and non-contentious public consumption. (p.39) Political violence and its effects are both personal and collective (individual and communal), and the fear that testimony before truth commissions might result in reprisals in unstable transitional settings should not be disregarded. There is no easy path out of social and cultural peripheralisation for victims of political violence, yet truth commissions are now commonly offered (and perhaps more worryingly, understood without critical analysis) as some sort of template for the uncomplicated (and ergo, impossible) amelioration of deep psychological, emotional and political scarring (Brinton Lykes et al., 2003). The fear of victims that truth commissions will commodify their memory and their stories, and subject them to a process of political appropriation in which they are expected to collude in the fabrication of false master narratives, is apparently disregarded (Edkins, 2003).Yet this fear holds wider political and philosophical significance. Whilst the unaffected majority of citizens, or the international community, might laud the imperative of ‘closure’, they are actually co-operating in the destruction of social memory, and that can have ramifications that in the longer term that are potentially much more destabilising. A ‘political whitewash’ — even if it falls under the guise of a truth commission — can serve only to prolong conflict and debate about the past (Ricoeur, 2004).

Conceptual, theoretical and practical lessons for Northern Ireland

Perhaps the most salient point here is that in the case of Northern Ireland — the subject of this book — lessons can be learned for the formation of an effective process of truth recovery which are not only conceptual and theoretical, but also practical. The failures of truth commissions in other settings, not only in terms of their philosophical and ideological framework, but in terms of their actual processes and outworkings — and most notable here would be Chile, Argentina and El Salvador — provide stark reminders for anyone in Northern Ireland who thinks that what the Germans labelled Vergangensheitbewaltigung’ (mastering the past) is going to be easy. The primary objective that many truth commissions have set themselves in the past — the satiation of which governments have so publicly and proudly declared as being the ‘solution’ to the problems of the past — is to create a truthful historical record.This ‘record’ is supposed to document and lament the murder and torture of victims, ask searching (or as it might turn out, not so searching and rhetorical) questions about the violent behaviour of human rights abusers (questions that often lack any sociological depth), outline a reductive ‘causality of conflict’, and underscore a collective determination that society will never return to a political situation in which terror becomes endemic. Such records are however, often utter fiction, for the reasons that have been outlined hitherto in this chapter about the problems of conformist histories (and which will again be addressed in more detail in Chapter 3). Timidity, (p.40) expediency, trepidation and amnesia have better characterised some truth commissions than any really meaningful search for truth in all its manifest and manifold variations, though it might be reasonably argued that such timidity is relative to the political instability and the threat of violent retribution in particular contexts. The notion of an ‘unbiased’ report — certainly without any scaffold of theoretical rationality to support it — is mere political double speak. Either both politicians and policymakers have been so naïve they have overlooked the impossibility of objectivity in these situations and have reverted to some notion of scientific positivism, or they are aware that they are immersed in a subjectivist morass yet have no intention of escaping it any other way than via the path of least resistance. Suffice to say, truth commissions are never presented to the public as the path of least resistance. Transitional governments make grandiose statements about the need to ‘start again’, a key part of their facade of sharing in the existential and emotional anguish of victims. However, if commissions are given six months to investigate years or even decades of violence, the subtext is quite clear: new regimes regard truth commissions as necessary evils, useful political implements, and even go so far as to suppress their findings. Truth commissions seem to have remained beyond international reproach for fear that ‘unstable’ societies will return to violence should victims be supported in their entitlement to criticise and confront the past. This is spurious policymaking, and it is the sort of political and moral appeasement that encourages societies to reject victims, and to focus on the creation of prosperous and ‘new’ nations that are ‘wiped clean’ of the horrors of the past (the economic carrot that is dangled as part of this grubby equation is also something that cannot be discounted, but this issue is discussed at greater length in Chapter 5).

The fundamental danger is that ‘authoritative’ histories can quickly become ‘authoritarian’ histories (White, 1987), narratives of the past shaped and moulded into one definitive story that supposedly aids reconciliation. Up to the time of writing (2007), there have been, at a conservative estimate, over twenty truth commissions in the last twenty years (Wilson, 2003). It is not unreasonable to contend that they are now an intrinsic part of the transitional justice ‘package’, a standard measure in the panoply of political ‘instruments’ for addressing the past following the collapse of autocratic regimes or protracted periods of violent conflict. Yet the devious political and tyrannical logic of maximum secrecy and deniability that permeated every orifice and edifice of government during military rule in Chile or Argentina, for example, is incredibly difficult to eradicate, and it is not unreasonable to suggest that temporally and spatially bound ‘investigatory’ commissions on their own could have only limited success in dismantling the apparatuses of clandestine malevolence.The ‘disappearances’ — forced abduction and murder of civilians regarded as political ‘subversives’ — in those countries are particularly difficult episodes of the past that people must confront using public (p.41) testimony over an extended period of time, in circumstances conducive to the protection and safety of victims. Without such guarantees, but still rejecting the template for dealing with the past offered by the government, some victims in Argentina have been willing to confront difficult issues, and have done so with vigour and energy for two decades, resulting in tangible success (Taylor, 1997; Hernandez, 2002). However, the nefarious nature of murderous enterprises such as the ‘disappearances’ in Argentina and Chile encouraged climates of constant suspicion and fear. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that that could be ameliorated by ‘investigators’ working for truth commissions in the space of only 12–24 months.

Victims were inevitably marginalised during the conflicts in Latin America and in Northern Ireland, as other citizens who had not been victimised tried to ensure they did not attract the attention of the military juntas or paramilitary groups. There can be little or no blame apportioned to those who did not ‘stand up and speak out’ during periods of military rule or paramilitary combat. Such action is rarely successful, usually individual, and requires levels of courage and moral conviction that societies should not expect of people while they are still under significant threat from the disproportionately violent responses of tyrannical regimes or paramilitary groups (see Hinton, 2002). In such situations, all but those who are active agents in the conflict can be considered subordinate groups, whether or not they are directly affected by acts of political violence. It has undoubtedly been the case that many people have felt — from Nazi Germany to Pinochet’s Chile — that the political and social situation is despicable, intolerable and morally unacceptable. Whilst attaching blame to all those who have remained silent in the face of violence is a natural polemical temptation, it does not deal meaningfully with the social reality of the all-pervasive fear that political violence creates. By fracturing communities and previously held social ties, authoritarian states and paramilitary groups encourage forms of negative individualism in which the primary desire of most people is merely to avoid the violent persecution of themselves and their family. The majority of people in such contexts feel much too threatened to confront the perpetrators, and regard themselves (or are made to feel by the insidious propaganda and capricious acts of horrendous violence) as ‘the weak’ — disorganised, disem-powered and, crucially, extremely afraid. This does not mean that all such people can be essentialised as having tacitly supported authoritarianism or the activities of those paramilitary groups who often claimed to represent them. Indeed, this is a rather facile and binary view of the nature of terrorism and its effects, which fails to explore the key nuances of individual subjectivity in the context of constant climates of fear. However, in the post-conflict era, those disempowered citizens have the opportunity to revisit the past, and it is the responsibility of policymakers and vibrant sectors of reconstructed civil society (provided they are uncoupled from partisan political interests (p.42) and groups) to provide a platform not just for victims but for all those who were repressed and subordinated to tell their stories about the destructive nature of systematic political violence. These people must be coaxed out of literal and metaphorical hiding. The legacy of terror predominates long after authoritarian governments have fallen or paramilitary groups have disbanded, and citizens — especially directly affected victims — have no reason to trust truth commission ‘investigators’ (a problematic and inappropriate term if ever there was one, with its overtones of quasi-military policing) who claim to represent their views without any threat of violent retaliation from still powerful members of past regimes or paramilitary groups. An extremely high level of social withdrawal has often taken place (Humphrey, 2005), and it is unrealistic and unfair to expect citizens who have endured conflict — especially victims — to be able to recount their stories, with all of their complex details, within a temporally bound period.

The result of this imperative — that truth commissions are both expeditious and synchronised with other aspects of the transitional justice ‘package’ — leads to an unacceptable state of affairs in which the notion of truth is invariably distorted. Truth recovery becomes no longer about the search for a conceptual and theoretical framework that will support the long-term excavation of traumatic experience so that the repetition of such crimes can be avoided, but rather the rapid creation and implementation of a political ‘instrument’ that allows societies superficially to ‘move on’. It denies victims the chance to recover not only versions of the truth that reflect ‘their history’, but also some sense of personhood and an emotionally healed (if only partially) self. Legalists use an impressive array of terms and clauses to abrogate their responsibility for ensuring that victims are catered for, yet their semantic skills in this regard are not entirely effective. They have been custodians of the truth recovery project for too long. If they have in certain instances been accused of being politicians in legal clothing, and are inextricably tied by governments (new or old) or external policymakers to some sort of political reconstruction with pre-determined ideals, then they should be stripped of the right that is automatically conferred upon them when the project of analysing violent histories begins. Truth commissions are often advertised as ‘in-between’ legal and political solutions — a non-adversarial way of seeking the truth — yet in the main they have been dominated by judges and lawyers. Additionally, many commissions have retained the right to incarcerate and punish, or to offer amnesty, as part of their findings. Yet if they decline to offer some kind of normative moral framework — the duty for which lawyers have been rightly venerated throughout the ages — and instead opt for some form of distasteful political bargaining, then they forfeit the right to control the post-conflict truth recovery process. Their involvement is not without merit, but the law, or twisted philosophical notions of it, and lawyers are sometimes used cynically by governments to lend credence to (p.43) political programmes that obfuscate and obscure the past rather than reveal it. This was the case in Argentina and Chile, in which truth commission reports dismissed the operations of military governments as unusual and aberrant periods of political history. Whilst condemnation was provided, the findings were couched in conceptual and collective terms that did not permit deeper analyses of the social and cultural conditions that allowed for tyranny and dictatorship (Grandin, 2005; Grandin and Klubock, 2007).

Rationality and agency do not seem to feature prominently in the search for explanations or solutions to the problems of confronting the past. Political violence is instead erased or explained away as the product of processes in which sociopathic and charismatic elites (sometimes even individuals) duped pliant followers into committing campaigns of mass torture and murder. This spurious logic has been rejected by leading historians of the Nazi period (and indeed other genocides, such as that perpetrated in Cambodia (Hinton, 2004)). Yet lessons from the Holocaust and subsequent genocides are seemingly not drawn. Truth commissions as currently constituted implicitly send out the message that individual agency — high-level perpetrators excepted — can to a large extent be discounted, dismissed, forgiven, or remain completely unknown. Instead they provide reductive typologies of the ‘worst’ atrocities that supposedly provide illustrative examples of violent acts, but offer little or no wider historical meaning or understanding. The question of who is responsible for this categorisation is highly contentious and such taxonomy smacks of bureaucratic insensitivity. In Chile, for example, the mandate of the original Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (The ‘Rettig Commission’ (1991)) was to ‘clarify in a comprehensive manner the truth about ‘the most serious violations committed in recent years [emphasis added]’. The ‘transitional’ government under the new President Aylwin felt that serious cases of torture and sexual violence were not crimes worth investigating, as they would prove too unwieldy and difficult to be solved within the allotted time period of the commission (which was nine months). The Rettig Commission was illuminative of an irreducibly legally instrumentalist and politically strategic approach to truth recovery. The final, unanimously agreed report was presented in 1991. Aylwin accepted the report and in a television broadcast to the Chilean people, he offered a formal apology on behalf of the government and its agents for their part in the violence. Whilst the report received press attention domestically and internationally, the assassination of a right-wing senator (Jaime Guzman, who had been a close advisor to the military dictator General Pinochet during the years of military rule) by the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (MRPF, a former left-wing paramilitary group which at the time of writing now has a role in the modern parliamentary system in Chile as part of continued political transition there), deflected public attention away from the findings. The assassination underlined how ineffective the report had been in (p.44) ameliorating tensions between the competing factions in Chile and how mistimed and misdirected the truth commission process had been in presuming that the government could unilaterally decide when the conflict was over, and determine what the truth of that conflict actually was. Armed and dangerous left-wing activists of the MRPF sent out a very clear and deadly message that they were still bitterly opposed to the ostensibly reconstructed Chilean government, and that the conflict was in fact far from over. It also raised very complex questions about the nature of the assassination and those who colluded in it, as just prior to his execution, Guzman had voted against a proposal which would allow the new President of Chile to grant amnesty to ‘terrorists’ (as defined by the Pinochet dictatorship) (Brown, 1991).The Chilean experience of truth recovery was not an encouraging one, and the Rettig Commission not only refused to name individual perpetrators, but ultimately was unable to offer any definitive conclusions due to a lack of evidence (this is discussed more in Chapter 3). The only beacon of hope here is a theoretical rather than an empirical one — namely, that transitions from violence to peace are not necessarily ‘finished’. Whilst evidence, stories, and truth processes become harder to implement the longer society is denied a confrontation with its past, victim and truth validation can potentially occur many years or decades later. The core problem of measuring the success or failure of democratic reconstruction according to such a temporal continuum of truth, however, is that it is potentially tainted by partisan revisionism that can be institutionally and culturally entrenched by mendacious governments and prominent, powerful political actors precisely because of the absence of critical truth recovery in the immediate aftermath of political violence; or that the past is only viewed as something that can be dealt with after a period of political ‘decontamination’. Truth recovery at any point must be welcome, but it arguably loses its critical potency if transitional societies adapt to the contours of new, ostensibly stable political arrangements that have not involved any direct, discomforting engagement with the past.

The balancing act of truth commissions therefore, which involves the need to operate according to what are euphemistically described as ‘political constraints’, can actually pollute and contaminate the process of recovering truth, and relegates individual experience of suffering at the hands of violent perpetrators to the margins and periphery of the newly reconstructed and apparently reconciled society. Those ‘low-level’ (a distasteful phrase but one used here for descriptive purposes only) perpetrators are largely regarded and written off as proxies for a small cabal of calculating and malevolent oligarchs (Das et al., 2001; Osiel, 2001). Working from that premise, incorporating ‘low-level’ perpetrators in the truth recovery project becomes almost completely unfeasible, and/or pointless. As ridiculous as it seems, perpetrators of political violence are arguably imbued with some sense of entitlement (p.45) by truth commissions. Despite being self-confessed human rights abusers, for the purposes of political compromise many of them — especially those supposed low-level activists who were ‘forced’ or ‘manipulated’ into participation by political puppeteers — are validated as ‘soldiers’ or ‘combatants’ by the intricate political language and process of post-conflict legitimisation (part of the ‘constraints’ already mentioned). These surreal scenarios in which perpetrators seek inducement for participation in truth recovery is, in the warped reality of political ‘balancing’, regarded as ‘necessary’. Following the logic of processes which seek to operationalise ‘closure’ in as hasty a fashion as possible in order to cement the power foundations of new regimes, and which are conducted in philosophical, conceptual and theoretical vacuums, seducing perpetrators into participation (in which they will most likely offer ‘evidence’ that is uninformative, and does not deviate from a well-rehearsed script that will not implicate them in human rights crimes) does become ‘necessary’. For many victims, this is a terrible indictment of the forms that truth commissions have taken. However, it is not required, in spite of what governments and policymakers might argue. As the following chapters will argue, there are alternative methods of truth recovery that have the needs and rights of victims of political violence as their centrepiece.

Whilst some governments and policymakers might decry the prospect of meaningful and truth recovery as unrealistic — or more likely, unworkable (and by this, the cynic might suggest they mean too expensive in both political and financial terms) — it is surely now evident that truth commissions have not created ‘authoritative’ records of the suffering of many victims. Without being dragged into the South African debate in too much detail (this book, after all, is about Northern Ireland), it has now become one of the predominant templates for societies emerging from protracted periods of violence. This notion of political and cultural mimesis is, irrespective of the deficiencies of the South African TRC (of which there have been many for victims, not least the amnesty process which was used as inducement for perpetrator involvement), highly problematic. Truth commissions are supposed to ‘open the door’ to the past, yet it seems that many — Argentina; Chile; El Salvador (led by outsiders to support the idea of impartiality, but reporting only on ‘serious acts of violence’); Guatemala (where an estimated 75,000 people were killed in a counter-insurgency war); and Bolivia (which ‘disbanded’ after three years without even producing a report) to name but a few — have closed that door firmly after a minor rummage through the ugly aspects of the past, in ways that have been ‘low cost’ in every sense. The supposed populist demand by diverse citizenries for ‘accountability’ is regarded as being capable of being satisfied by the implementation of truth commissions, either by domestic transitional governments or members of the ‘international community’ (some of whom might have much to lose from candid revelations — alleged US involvement in Honduras and El (p.46) Salvador for example). The reality, however, is that conflicts that have raged for years or decades in various countries throughout the world cannot be accurately accounted for by commissions that either investigate and report only upon a ‘top tier’ of crimes, ‘high-level’ perpetrators, the ‘worst atrocities’, and which generally offer collective analyses which factor out individual responsibility and victims’ experiences.Victims of conflict must be afforded the opportunity to self-identify as victims, however long that takes acknowledging the deleterious and language-destroying effects of violence, and to come forward and to tell their story in public. That way, the veracity of truth claims can be decided upon by way of a long-term process of inter-subjective interchange and rational communicative action (Habermas, 1984). This is discussed in much greater depth in Chapter 4.

The long-term nature of truth recovery projects is crucial because it allows sufficient space for victims to tell stories, and to surmount the legacy of violence that has persisted long beyond the cessation of conflict. Whilst truth commissions remain temporally bound mechanisms that are used only to ‘manage’ societies in transition in which there has been no outright military or political victor, they will arguably continue to be ineffective in promoting the discovery of any consensus via the public debate of competing histories. The fragmentation that occurs during conflict means that society cannot quickly be ‘glued’ back together using some form of inappropriate political adhesive. Regardless of how potent or efficacious governments and policymakers believe truth commissions to be, it is possible to argue that as post-conflict reparatory devices (in conceptual, theoretical and practical terms), they have not done enough to confront and master the past.

Supporters of truth commissions, as has been noted, have advocated their value in addressing the legacy of violence as the basis for advancing national reconciliation, rather than pursuing the perpetrators of political violence according to domestic or international law (though it is important to note that there is a smaller policymaking constituency that supports a combination of both). It is arguably wrong to suggest that the South African TRC managed to sidestep the blurring of the distinctions between legal and political processes. It was also a unique situation — as is each and every conflict throughout the world — with its own nuances and peculiarities. Most crucially of all, it had the legal capacity to offer perpetrators amnesty. This immediately poses incredibly difficult questions as to the purpose of any truth recovery project. Whilst the statistics as to those who actually received amnesty are nowhere near as great as popular perception suggests (there are various figures for this, but recent assessments suggest that of those 7,000 people who applied for amnesty, around 10–15 per cent will eventually be granted it (Hamber, 2003)), a key conceptual and philosophical principle was conceded by the South African TRC — namely, that some version of truth (and many of those offered were undoubtedly suspicious) could be ‘traded’ (p.47) for freedom. This was by no means the first time that this had happened — the amnesty laws of Chile and Argentina were stark reminders of that — but it somehow seemed that this trade-off was worse in a situation where notions of reconciliation and justice were conflated and so heavily emphasised. Additionally, whilst Chile and Argentina have been rightly criticised for impunity laws (even though some have been successfully overturned) in South Africa, although amnesty was neither blanket nor automatic, as something of an ex-post facto rationalisation, many have argued not only that this was ‘necessary’ for reconciliation and to avoid further bloodshed, but that it should be the template for the resolution of conflicts and the recovery of truth in other contexts (Gibson, 2002). Many victims in Northern Ireland find the argument that the recovery of truth and history should require unseemly bargaining with perpetrators of political violence (that is, the offer of amnesty for the mere involvement of human rights abusers) objectionable. This is not to say that those perpetrators who demonstrate genuine remorse and who offer stories of honesty that constitute a genuine contribution to an evolving peace process should be granted some form of clemency as was the case in South Africa, or to ignore the political reality that compromise might invariably be required at some point. However, to hide this compromise within ostensibly neutral and impartial legal language is patently dishonest. In these situations, the law, short of imposing a normative moral framework, cannot claim superiority over standard political practice in terms of its objectivity or neutrality (Hastrup, 2003). It is the expressly subjectivist political product of a framework for conflict resolution within which strategic decisions are made by power elites, apparently in the interests of transition and reconstruction. It also leaves ordinary citizens, and particularly victims of the conflict, comparatively disenfranchised.

Some of the victims in South Africa, but by no means the majority (an estimated 2,000 of the 20,000 people who gave statements were able to testify in public) were given the opportunity to speak in what became a pseudo ‘open court’. This was televised in a weekly one-hour special, and this somewhat voyeuristic take on the process was served up as a kind of bizarre entertainment. Additionally, all of the hearings were broadcast on radio (Krog, 2000). This second-hand, mediated version of proceedings became regarded as representative of the entire truth recovery experience in South Africa, especially by citizens of other counties. The courtroom-style proceedings invoked the notion of the potency of the law, and of forgiveness as a solid and trusted measure of adjudication in post-conflict circumstances, but the TRC was caught between being a political project and a legal one. It placed firm emphasis on truth as inextricably linked to reconciliation (Gibson, 2004).This meant that detente, if and when it occurred, could often appear artificial or incomplete, and it was in any case woven into a wider tapestry and history of the apartheid era. The project of producing a narrative (p.48) of the past, and in particular the period from 1960–94, was prioritised by the TRC. In this effort it was apparently successful, but it is hard to escape the idea that this was the formation of a conformist narrative to which everyone was expected or even compelled to subscribe in the interests of reconciliation. Indeed, when some victims expressed their disappointment that the amnesty provisions of the TRC precluded them from their constitutional right to pursue perpetrators through the normal court system (the families of Biko and Ribeiro, for example, who unsuccessfully challenged the legality of Section 20(7) of the National Unity and Reconciliation Act in the Constitutional Court) they were roundly and aggressively criticised by the African National Congress (ANC), and by the TRC itself, both of which branded anyone opposed to the TRC as ‘anti-reconciliation’. The TRC had become an entity that started to believe in its own myth, and it suffered from a lack of any honest and reflective criticism of its flaws. Deemed to be beyond reproach, anyone who offered any form of critique was labelled as ‘anti-reconciliation’ or worse, ‘pro-apartheid’ (and not only by parties internal to South Africa). Such rhetorical viciousness, as empty and illogical as it was, prompted fear and silence amongst sceptics, none of whom wanted to be tainted or positioned by powerful forces as ‘against peace’, and it was a very simple way for top-level supporters of the TRC to help ensure that the reconciliation process navigated its way through what could have been potentially very troubled waters.

The TRC also embraced both legal and social scientific positivist epistemology, and a forensic model of investigation and analysis ultimately became totally predominant. This forensic model manifested itself in the production of the TRC report, and was institutionalised as the ‘Information Management System (Infocomm)’. Infocomm was an ‘established’ mechanism for documenting human rights abuses (versions of it having been used in Guatemala and El Salvador). Astoundingly, it relied entirely on quantitative statistical methods in producing the TRC report in South Africa. As a systematic device, it reduced victims’ narratives to quantifiable acts (Wilson, 2003). As the TRC progressed, Infocomm became overwhelmingly concerned with ‘positivist concerns and the desire to create legally defensible findings, at the expense of victims’ experience of telling their stories’ (Wilson, 2003: 376). Shockingly, and increasingly resonant with the Orwellian nature of the enterprise, the data-coding process of Infocomm broke victims’ narratives down into a series of forty-eight categories of violation, which were called the ‘controlled vocabulary’ (Wilson, 2001; 2003). Eventually the findings were manipulated into a story that apparently ‘made sense’ of the chaos that had prevailed during the horrors of the apartheid era, arriving at an outcome which was in many ways pre-determined by the stated political imperatives of the TRC’s architects, and as such was digested voraciously and speedily by the international community. ‘Closure’, so it seemed, had been relatively easily achieved.

(p.49) However, the ‘revealing is healing’ slogan of the TRC promised more than it could possibly deliver (Hamber and Wilson, 2002). Healing did not automatically follow revealing for all victims, not least because of the circumstances and constraints under which ‘revealing’ had to take place in South Africa and elsewhere. The notion that collective catharsis amongst victims could be artificially induced was facile and amateur in its construction and application, and as already noted it represented an erroneous version of Freudian psychoanalytic psychotherapy. ‘Catharsis’ has been a term borrowed from another professional realm to add credibility and authority to truth recovery projects throughout the world, without any genuine analysis or deconstruction of its actual conceptual meaning. As a misrepresentation, it has passed into the popular political lexicon and even now is routinely misused by academics and commentators. Belief in or support for any political process that promises either collective or individual ‘catharsis’ is entirely misplaced. It plays upon the emotional and psychological isolation and alienation of victims of political violence by seemingly offering them a quick method by which they can end their liminal status and reconnect with mainstream society. This is posited as some sort of uncomplicated transition in which victims can rediscover their place in the new political and cultural order. The danger, as already noted, is that victims’ suffering is used instrumentally as a commodity by governments to rewrite national histories (Rae, 2002).

Truth commissions can also restigmatise and objectify victims of political violence (Das et al., 2000).They operate ostensibly to satisfy the objectives of ‘moving on’, but there should be significant opposition to the hidden complexity and dishonesty of this particular instruction. Although the political reality of closure has its own internal coherence (that it is ‘necessary’ to bring about sustainable political change), governments, policymakers and dominant political actors interacting with those who have economic vested interests rarely have the courage to sell it to the public on these strengths alone. Instead, they appropriate processes of truth recovery in manipulative attempts to ensure the compliance of the vast majority of citizens in what are often tainted and pre-determined processes of power redistribution and moral appeasement, particularly amongst competing power elites or factions. Most distastefully, this often includes satisfying at least some of the political demands of those who were responsible for campaigns of political violence. The direct result of this can be the institutionalisation of truth commissions, which subsequently claim, as part of their ‘mandate’ (which is rarely conferred by the citizenry) the right to determine the pace and nature of reconciliation, according to a pre-determined and often nebulous theoretical notion of what reconciliation actually is, besides its political value to them as a tool that can fortify new regimes. Truth commissions have arguably become rituals of political transition that are used to rationalise the reconstruction of (p.50) new regimes. By controlling truth commissions — and even more problematically, their output — post-conflict governments can seize the opportunity to dictate the texture of history.

External intervention

One way of avoiding domestic regime-tainted interference is to invite people from outside the affected territory to direct and control the truth recovery process. This was the case in El Salvador. The Salvadoran Truth Commission was the outcome of a negotiated settlement between the military and a strong insurgent group, both of whom remained undefeated during a long conflict. This military stalemate led to political talks in an attempt to end the civil war which had raged in El Salvador throughout the 1980s. The Salvadoran government had great difficulty in trying to cope with a highly effective and organised guerrilla group, the Farbaundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Whilst the strength of this paramilitary group gave it a strong hand in peace negotiations, the transitional government remained unchanged from that which had fought the FMLN during the civil war. In that regard, it was not transitional at all. During peace negotiations, both the government and the FMLN offered lists of those for whom they sought impunity and amnesty, but there was bitter disagreement and they were unable to reach a consensus. At that point, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN accepted a proposal by the United Nations (UN) to establish, implement and control a truth commission. This was not in isolation — the UN had been previously involved in various capacities, monitoring and reporting human rights violations since the inception of the conflict. In a society in which violence had persisted for so long and so brutally, with such disastrous consequences; and with both parties to that conflict undefeated (and there are some instructive comparisons with Northern Ireland to be drawn here), there was some logic in accepting the UN’s proposal to allow outsiders without vested interests to establish a truth recovery process (Wood, 2003). Hypothetically, the UN could conduct and direct a thorough and professional process that would pose questions and reach conclusions that might be beyond the reach of the internal government (Doyle et al., 1997). However, the UN commission’s limited intervention (six months) gave them nowhere near enough space or time to achieve these objectives. Furthermore, the commission fell foul of the same theoretical and conceptual flaws as truth commissions in other parts of Latin America, namely its decision to focus only on what it termed serious acts of violence that had occurred since 1980, and whose impact on society urgently demanded that the Salvadoran public should know the truth.

This was an unsatisfactory platform for meaningful analysis and critical interpretation of the past. It again begged the crucial question of whose (p.51) decision it was to categorise acts of violence as more or less serious, a distinction that had a negative impact on victims deemed to be of ‘lesser’ importance. Nonetheless, both the government and the FMLN agreed to full participation and co-operation. The Salvadoran Truth Commission was only composed of only three individuals, selected by the UN Secretary General: American law professor Thomas Burergenthal (notably a Holocaust survivor), former Colombian President Belisario Betancur, and ex-Venexuelan foreign minister Reinalod Figueredo. The project was entirely UN-sponsored, and all finances and staff members were from outside El Salvador. With only six months to find the ‘truth’ of a twelve-year civil war, the commission, as with so many others, claimed that it could only focus on ‘select’ or ‘representative’ cases. It was presented with over 2,000 testimonies which related to human rights abuses involving more than 7,000 victims. It seemed that the international community via the UN had asserted its authority to intervene in post-conflict situations, having been given a specific legal mandate by a UN Security Council resolution. Whilst the idea of lending an air of neutrality by appointing outside commission members was a strong one, the period that the commission was given to reach its findings was ludicrously brief, and it is debatable as to whether or not a commission of only three members was adequate enough in terms of numbers and professional expertise (two ex-politicians and a lawyer).

Given all of those restraints, the Salvadoran Truth Commission faced an uphill struggle from its initiation. It interviewed victims, military personnel, FMLN activists, lawyers and members of the courts, and government officials. At its conclusion, it decided only to publish the results of its ‘investigations’ in thirty-two ‘cases’ (again, making this appear much more like a legal exercise with traditional retributive punishment than a project of truth recovery), and in approximately half of those thirty-two cases, the commission discovered requisite ‘evidence’ to publicly name those individuals whom it believed had committed or ordered serious acts of political violence. From a truth recovery project that promised so much, with such a potentially strong framework (outside expertise and a large reservoir of international funds), it delivered findings that were extremely limited and disappointing. Around forty military officers were named as perpetrators but most had retired from active service, and only six leaders of the FMLN were identified as being responsible for campaigns of political assassinations. Not surprisingly, and most depressingly of all, the vast majority of victims were offered no solace by the commission, and no opportunity to give testimony in public. Furthermore, the role of the USA in the conflict remained shrouded in mystery and rumour. Whilst the international composition of the commission had advantages, as noted, in the end its failure to provide an effective examination of the past and to empower victims underlined its structural and practical weaknesses. Reports created by outside ‘experts’ or agencies such as (p.52) the UN are extremely vulnerable to the idea amongst citizens internal to post-conflict societies that truth recovery is a colonising and controlling project, even if they are highly regarded amongst other constituent members of the international community. If outside agencies are to be involved in truth recovery — and there is a clear and supportable logic that they should be, especially in societies in which internal conflict has resulted in military and political stalemate — they must ensure that chunks of social memory related to gross acts of political violence are not selected and presented as representative. The result of this can be a process that potentially contributes to the fabrication and mismanagement of history, and it will be arguably easier for groups within the post-conflict society opposed to any of the findings to discount them as the product of malevolent and partisan interference on the part of ‘outsiders’.

The suffering of victims of political violence cannot, therefore, be easily confined. It has been routinely suppressed and repressed in a variety of post-conflict contexts, in multifarious ways, and those victims who resist the imperatives of truth commissions (or the idea of one) or dispute their findings are often driven into social and cultural quarantine. Victims must be able to assert their social and political right to control, at least in part, what happens to them and their stories within reformulated post-conflict societies. The commemoration of suffering which follows processes of truth recovery must be carefully protected, yet if it is based on ‘false’ histories to which victims feel they cannot conform, it is, in their view, irretrievably corrupted and as such not recognised as authentic (this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 5). In truth commissions, especially in South Africa when some victims’ testimony was transmitted via television, it gave those watching some broadly defined sense of how this social memory should and could be reconfigured for the ‘greater good’. Whilst public storytelling is to be lauded as it offers victims of violence the chance to be heard, unless it is properly handled and set within an appropriate theoretical framework it runs the risk of becoming borrowed or even stolen memory, which the general public both internally and internationally ‘grabs’ and regards as its own. This affords the unaffected majority a disproportionate sense of entitlement as to how victims’ memory should be ‘used’ in the great new project of achieving reconciliation.

This, from a critical perspective, could be argued to be part of the wider plan of governments and policymakers in transitional societies. By promoting the vague objectives of ‘peace’, ‘reconciliation’ or ‘closure’, without offering any fine detail of how this might be achieved conceptually and logistically — and at what cost, emotionally, financially and politically — they can take control of the ways in which memory is managed. The part of television stations and the media in this cannot be understated. In a society in which citizens are offered only thinly sketched notions of what truth commissions (p.53) should achieve, one must ask serious and critically analytical questions of who gets to control the editing of television news shows and reporting. The same is the case with the ways in which the findings of truth commissions are relayed and analysed in print. Newspapers have an enormous responsibility in ensuring accuracy in their stories, yet many are not noted for stressing factual, non-biased accuracy above all else, and are also often under the control of oligarchs and plutocrats who have close ties to either the old or new regimes.

All of this is made even more complex because governments, policymakers and sections of civil society with particularist agendas often tell the public that truth commissions are about investigating the wrongs of history in a non-partisan, ‘neutral’ way, leaving no stone unturned in the search for ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ (and other governments, it must not be forgot, resist any form of truth recovery absolutely). In that sense, many governments claim to have no idea where the findings of truth commissions might take them. This is highly deceptive. Using a technology of constructive ambiguity that is used to disguise harsh political reality, many transitional governments very often have every idea where truth commissions will take them, precisely because they are steering them in a pre-determined direction which will ensure minimum political damage to their new administration (Chile being an obvious example). Those citizens who are imbued with some sense of false entitlement as to how to ‘manage’ the borrowed memory of victims in rewriting the history of the conflict, but who lack any notion of coherence in terms of how this might be achieved, are subtly pushed in a particular way by often overwhelmingly powerful new regimes, who use an array of sophisticated political tools in ensuring that the past is shaped according to their demands. This gives the impression that unaffected citizens have somehow conspired or colluded in the exclusion of victims just so that societies can ‘move on’, and this can be the case, as many victims’ groups have discovered, but it is crucial to note that sections of the unaffected general public have often been fooled too. Citizens of transitional societies — not just victims — are compelled to surrender their natural democratic right to challenge the findings of truth commissions by an insidious false dichotomy that is forced upon them by power elites with great personal or micro-collective interests in ensuring the findings of truth commissions ‘stick’. This false dichotomy leads people to believe that any criticism of the function of truth commissions equates to them being ‘anti-peace’ or ‘anti-reconciliation’. This specious rationale can be and is pedalled without shame by new regimes so that they can solidify their power base without any informed, critical and truly democratic challenge. This commoditisation of history for political purposes should be rejected outright as an acceptable form of truth recovery. The presentation of fractured (and carefully selected) traumatic testimonies as representative of the whole experience of violent (p.54) suffering does not necessarily result in social or political rehabilitation in all transitional contexts. To add insult to injury for victims, it does unfortunately seem to offer some form of political recuperation for those who might well have been involved in the perpetration of serious human rights abuses.


The failings of truth commissions, as outlined in this chapter, are due largely in part to the weaknesses of the conceptual, ideological, philosophical and theoretical frameworks within which they are created and implemented. Without a solid theoretical foundation, truth commissions remain vulnerable to the deliberate and often malevolent interference and manipulation of power elites. Similarly, they are susceptible to ambiguity and confusion amongst the general public about their actual purpose, with many governments advocating temporally bound processes that are obliged quickly to uncover the nuance and complexities of decades of political violence and victims’ suffering, in order that the reconstituted society might be able to ‘draw a line under the past’. The emphasis from some governments on the need for complete political reconciliation between competing factions can act as a dangerous subtext that subliminally instructs citizens to sideline critical scrutiny of the past in the interests of building a new, utopian post-conflict society, or deal with the consequences, which are implied or explicitly stated to be renewed violence. Northern Ireland has much to learn from the lessons of other truth commissions, not least that victims must be allowed to tell stories. Those stories must be central to a truth recovery project that has at its core the capacity to repair the destruction of language and personhood amongst victims that have been the results of political violence, and to ameliorate the terrible social and political effects of the legacy of conflict. There must be a suitable mechanism for recovering consensual history, especially when the past is contested in divided societies. The architecture, implementation and maintenance of any truth recovery project cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of those who would wish to control it for explicit or implicit partisan and instrumentalist political purposes.

Transitional justice and post-conflict discourse, especially that propagated by governments and powerful politically partisan actors, has often emphasised the political compromise that is supposedly ‘necessary’ as part of the project of successfully dealing with the past. This involves, at least in part, the suspension of traditional notions of normative morality and legal retribution in favour of an approach that can offer truth and ‘closure’ to victims. This option has become entrenched within the last two decades, as noted, but both truth and justice can be achieved without the unfortunate negation of legal and moral norms and the unfortunate exclusive focus on structural (p.55) issues at the expense of rigorous investigations into individual subjectivity and agency. As Ni Aolain and Turner (2007: 247) have argued:

A truth process is often intended to represent a break from the past, not only by drawing a line under a history of human rights abuses, but by providing a symbolic gesture to over-arching political accountability [emphasis added].

There is little doubt that, as Ni Aolain and Turner have suggested, truth processes in varied geopolitical contexts have been intended to form a break with the past (rather than deal with it), but their attempts to do this have, as has been argued throughout this chapter, often fallen woefully short of what is required to provide victims with sufficient emotional and psychological reparation. The idea of ‘drawing a line under the past’ has been the political priority of many post-violence administrations, who view their primary task as state or nation building. Attempts hurriedly to fashion a politically legitimate state, however, are undone by a refusal adequately to confront the horrors of the past in ways that can resolve the myriad problems that victims of violence must face. The hierarchy of harms that truth commissions have frequently sought to produce also reflects particular and dominant modes of analysis that are concentrated on the creation of paradigmatic examples of suffering that governments and policymakers erroneously believe can contribute to the efficacious and rapid construction of a new state. Part of this imperative is the factoring out or complete erasure of subaltern narratives, especially those related to victimhood that is either regarded as not being ‘high profile’ enough, or which simply has not been countenanced by male-dominated groups, such as the stories of violence that has regularly been inflicted on women and children during political conflicts (Ni Aolain, 2000; Ross, 2003; Fisher, 2007). In relation to the model for truth recovery that is suggested in this book, it should be noted that there is an attempt to redress this gender imbalance, and that all suggestions for reformulating and reconceptualising the ways that truth recovery should be managed in Northern Ireland (and beyond) are cognisant of the need to include all of those victims’ narratives that have traditionally been elided by truth commissions, including those of women and children. Indeed, the primacy afforded to individual subjectivity and storytelling within the processes and model outlined in the next chapters, and the argument that is made for there to be an entitlement for all those who self-identify as victims to at least be given the opportunity to have their story heard, removes the structural and functionalist strait-jacket that has been used to peripheralise or ignore liminal groups. By obviating the need for expedient structural explanations, the critical theory dimensions of the truth recovery project that is described in the ensuing chapters therefore lend themselves to a forceful deconstruction of the previously gendered nature of the procedural aspects of dealing with the past in transitional societies.

(p.56) Truth commissions have undoubtedly become discredited by the experiences of victims in other settings, as outlined in this chapter. What is required in Northern Ireland therefore is a model of truth recovery that takes account of the need for all victims to rediscover their voice and to articulate their stories; and for those stories to be placed within a theoretical context that is strong enough to support critical analysis and communicatively rational methods of distinguishing what can and cannot be regarded as a fair and/or accurate reflection of the past by the majority of the citizenry, so that those historical records that can be created are not manufactured or fabricated by power elites, but instead actually reflect a consensual version of the nature of the conflict.This is an approach that maximises the influence of the ‘ordinary’ public, and which requires vibrant citizenries to confront the past rather than to turn away from it. It also empowers, enfranchises and eventually, hopefully, emancipates (at least to an extent) victims from the legacy of suffering. Victims require processes of truth recovery that do not attempt to compartmentalise, commoditise, codify or quantify their suffering, and which move beyond the unpalatable idea that has been posited by some governments that victims can be compensated simply in financial terms (see Torpey, 2001, 2003). There must also be emotional and psychological reparation, and that is the duty of both the state and the perpetrators of political violence during conflicts, including paramilitary groups. Without this, the negative political significance of the history of violence can be lost, ignored and forgotten, with forms of social amnesia facilitated by the narrative simplicity of conformist histories in which victims can be homogenised and disregarded. The past should not be inappropriately and hastily separated from the present based simply on the dynamics of processes that claim to offer total solutions in post-conflict societies. It would be extremely difficult to devise an ‘alternative’ model of truth recovery without first anchoring it in theory that represents a genuine and meaningful departure from the failures of previous truth commission processes. In this book, just such a model is outlined. This model is not intended as a ‘solution’, but rather as a first step towards political, historical, social and cultural rehabilitation in a deeply divided society where little or no agreement currently holds as to the explanations for conflict; and where victims have been largely marginalised by the speed of the political transition. In the next chapter, the ways in which campaigns of political violence have destroyed language amongst victims (in Northern Ireland and elsewhere) and the ways in which victims have been forcibly silenced are examined. The need for individual victims to escape social and political isolation, to be empowered and assisted to rediscover their voice, and encouraged to articulate their stories in public is also discussed in considerable depth, and analysed as a crucial step in the construction of an effective, critically interpretive truth recovery process.