February 27, 2000
On a recent visit to East Timor, I found an amazing willingness to welcome those who committed mayhem under Indonesian military direction. Even militia leaders will be accepted, provided they recognize the 78% vote for independence. The East Timorese understand who ravaged their country and are frustrated that half-hearted efforts to bring Indonesian officers to justice are going nowhere.
Of the 175,000 who have returned from West Timor, a few dozen have been harassed or assaulted. Although militias killed thousands and burned most of East Timor’s buildings in 1999, only four returnees have been killed in retaliation, all more than ten months ago. Nevertheless, 100,000 East Timorese refugees languish in squalid refugee camps 16 months after Indonesian soldiers and militias forced them there.
The fear which keeps some from returning is inculcated by armed militias whose propaganda, threats and violence mislead the refugees about what they would face in East Timor. While useful for other purposes, a Truth Commission will not help the refugees. Only concerted international pressure on the Indonesian government to disarm and disband the militias and prosecution of those who committed crimes can end this 540-day hostage crisis.
National Coordinator, East
Timor Action Network
Truth commissions can aid nations in understanding and remaking a damaged political culture. They can help victims to heal, create a consensus for democratic reforms and uncover evidence that can be used to prosecute the guilty. But some countries that establish commissions will not see these benefits, because the new democratic governments lack the desire or clout to sustain their work or have designed truth commissions unsuitable to their societies.
Truth commissions have recently begun work in Nigeria and Panama, and
are about to start in Sierra Leone and East Timor. Indonesia and Peru are
completing the rules for new ones and commissions are being seriously discussed
in Mexico, Bosnia, Serbia, Ghana, Burundi and elsewhere. Canada may establish
a truth commission to examine aspects of how it treated native
While a truth commission is an official investigation into a repressive past, each nation must determine what span to cover and what kinds of crimes to investigate under what rules. For example, a commission may not be given the power to grant amnesty, or it can follow South Africa and offer amnesty to those who confess in full. Commissions also must decide whether to pass information collected to the courts.
These choices should depend on a nation's history and the strength of its new democratic government. But some lessons can be drawn from past experiences. The most important is that a truth commission must have plenty of money, a broad mandate and high-level backing because it will face powerful resistance.
Such resistance can sometimes prevent truth commissions from publishing the names of those credibly accused of atrocities. But this should be done if possible, especially in countries where the perpetrators are still powerful enough to have received a promise of amnesty.
Testimony should also be in public, if victims are not endangered by it. When victims tell their stories in secret, the truth emerges only when the commission's final report is published. Priscilla Hayner, whose work with many countries setting up truth commissions forms the basis for her new book, "Unspeakable Truths," argues that televised testimony was essential to reaching a large audience in South Africa. The unfolding drama made the news every day. It could not be ignored even by committed supporters of apartheid - the truth commission's most important audience.
While borrowing ground rules from other nations, governments should tailor commissions for their own use. The draft legislation for Indonesia's truth commission, for example, adopts South Africa's model wholesale, including its amnesty - even though in Indonesia there is no public clamor for amnesty, no need to protect the democratic transition and no serious threat of trials, which induce people to choose full confession and amnesty.
Other countries have copied procedures more profitably. South Africa
and Germany examined the role that institutions such as the church or media
played in supporting dictatorship, an idea Nigeria's truth commission is
now using. It has held hearings into what actions Shell Oil took to prevent
the execution of Ken Saro- Wiwa and other environmental activists in 1995,
after they were convicted of murder in a sham trial. Shell, which enjoys
great influence in Nigeria, only spoke against the executions two days
Ms. Hayner believes that East Timor's new commission is one that will make creative use of local customs. It will not deal with those accused of the most serious crimes, who will be brought before the courts. But there are about 10,000 East Timorese who participated with the Indonesian-backed militias in committing lesser crimes - far too many for the courts to handle. Many are in exile in West Timor, afraid to come home because they fear being lynched.
The truth commission will bring those who want to return before local village councils, where they will admit their crimes, apologize and be sentenced to appropriate community service. By local custom, they should then be safe from acts of revenge.
Perhaps the most important role of a truth commission is to recommend reforms in the courts, police and schools. In Sierra Leone, for example, the new truth commission's recommendations will be mandatory, and the commission will also leave behind a group to report on how well they are being carried out. Understanding the past is crucial for a distressed nation, but such comprehension is useful only if it leads to change.