“Unspeakable truths”

20 October 2010 by Thijs Bouwknegt

Truth commissions have gained steady ground as a mechanism to deal with past atrocities. In 2009 alone, five commissions were set up. Geneva-based expert Priscilla Hayner studied over 40 truth commissions established since the 1970s to record the 'unspeakable truths' about human rights abuses.

Are truth commissions global phenomena?
You find them spread out almost evenly between the Americas, Africa and even in Asia. There have also been some commissions in Europe - such as in the former Yugoslavia. In North America there have also been such commissions, like in North Carolina and now in Canada, which is looking into treatment of indigenous populations going back several generations.

Five commissions were established last year. The most recent is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Thailand, which intends to look into events earlier this year, and also go back a number of years to try to understand the polarisation in the country.

The first one I documented, ironically, was a commission set up in Uganda in 1974 by Idi Amin, who himself was an abusive dictator. He set it up thinking he could somehow whitewash what had taken place, but it worked fairly independently and people still see its report as quite an important marker as to what took place.

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