More on Justice and the Canadian TRC

January 5, 2009

My last post of 2008 raised the issue of justice. What type of justice can come out of a truth and reconciliation commission? Is justice about punishing those responsible for human rights abuses? Is it about reparation or retribution? Is it about righting past wrongs by allowing for new relations of power? Or is it about rectifying national histories to include previously denied or suppressed narratives? I think it’s fitting that my first post of the new year continues with this thread, and explores these questions. 

I recently read Antje Krog’s book entitled “Country of My Skull,” which is a personal account of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Krog follows the Commission as a radio journalist covering the events as they unfold. She traces how the proceedings affect her both personally and professionally. One of her insights relates to the highly controversial aspect of granting amnesty in exchange for full truth. In her exploration, she recognizes the entanglement and confusion regarding the terms “truth” and “justice,” and explains how their meanings can shift and change. 

She asks, “Will a Commission be sensitive to the word ‘truth’?” and highlights the different ways in which the concept of truth has been mobilized. She goes on to explain the nuances in definitions of ‘justice’ and how it relates to ‘truth:’ 

“If [the Commission’s] interest in truth is linked only to amnesty and compensation, then it will have chosen not truth, but justice. If it sees truth as the widest possible compilation of people’s perceptions, stories, myths and experiences, it will have chosen to restore memory and foster a new humanity, and perhaps that is justice in its deepest sense” (16). 

I tend to agree with Krog’s formulation of justice, and it may be particularly relevant in the Canadian context. Because the focus of the Canadian TRC is on rectifying a lack in historical responsibility, a broader definition of justice must be invoked. The process of reconciliation is not solely about individuals (victims facing perpetrators, whites facing blacks, non-Aboriginals facing Aboriginals for example). It is also about a larger process, of communities and individuals alike taking responsibility for past actions and their current consequences. As Krog notes, perhaps this allows for a deeper sense of justice, one that is focused on communities and individuals alike. 

More questions will arise about the type of justice that comes out of truth and reconciliation commissions as the process progresses. My primary one at the moment concerns the concept of historical responsibility. Is justice the same as retribution or prosecution, or is providing a fuller historical knowledge base for current and future generations part of what we would consider justice? Is giving an opportunity of hearing and engaging stories and voices that have long been silenced also a form of justice?

5 Responses to “More on Justice and the Canadian TRC”

  1. Emanuel Says:

    In my very limited experience on the subject, and specifically with regards to village ‘gacaca’ (pronounced gachacha) tribunals in Rwanda post-Genocide, the exchange of amnesty for truth quickly becomes a way out for wannabe repenters, specially in a situation where traditional justice processes are unable to cope with the issues at hand. Unfortunately, this dynamic hijacks the process and results in shortcomings of the gathering of the necessary ‘historical knowledge for current and future generations’. There are quite a few grassroots documentaries on the topic which allow for good insight into the process, perhaps not providing much analysis but rather the opportunity to feel like a spectator at the village tribunals.

  2. tracingmemory Says:

    Thanks for your reply. I’d be interested in watching those documentaries you mentioned. If you can suggest one to start with, it’d be appreciated.

    The issue of amnesty is incredibly difficult. And I think you are right in that the dynamic created in the ‘trade-off’ between truth and amnesty can compromise the outcome. I know very little about the ‘gacaca’ process, and wasn’t aware that amnesty was being offered in exchange for full accounts.

    A book that I’ve found helpful in understanding the Rwandan genocide is called When Victims become Killers by Mahmood Mamdani. It deals more specifically with the conditions that led to the genocide and doesn’t go too far into the reconciliation process but it does discuss briefly the concept of ‘survivor justice’ which I think is a productive way to think about a way to move forward in a post-genocide society. Perhaps I’ll post more about ‘survivor justice’ in the next couple of weeks. I don’t think I’d do the concept justice without revisiting it first.

  3. Emanuel Says:

    While in Rwanda, I got to watch several documentaries that had been brought by one member of our team. He was from Belgium and most of the projects were in French. Unfortunately I do not have the titles but I did find this one that sounds like it could be in a similar style, although I have not seen it:
    http://www.anneaghionfilms.com/gacaca/living_together_again/index.html

  4. tracingmemory Says:

    I checked out that link. It looks like a great documentary. I’ll try to get my hands on a copy and let you know what I think. Thanks!


  5. […] a highly personal reflection on the process of national reconciliation after the fall of apartheid. When I first read it, I was looking for two sorts of information: 1) What were the basic facts of the commission? Who […]


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