Summary of "Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity"

Summary of

Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity

by Priscilla B. Hayner

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Priscilla B. Hayner. Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.

As the most comprehensive analysis of truth commissions to date, this book is essential for anyone interested in these bodies or in transitional justice more generally. Hayner presents a balanced account of truth commissions and their potential contribution to transitional societies. She is skeptical, for example, of sweeping claims sometimes made about the therapeutic "healing" or national "reconciliation" power of truth commissions. Unfortunately, in most cases, people have expectations far in excess of what is reasonably possible and this disappointment often leads people to overlook positive effects.

The book outlines the growing feeling that there is a need to address the past for victims, and that not doing anything would make recurrence more likely. It further examines different reasons why a state might want to examine its past. The author discusses different transitional justice mechanisms and carefully distinguishes how truth commissions are unique. Hayner provides a very accessible account of why a country would opt to create a truth commission. She provides a balanced discussion on the healing power of truth. Our understanding on this point is hazy, as anecdotal evidence exists both for and against. However, she does agree with the view that an unaddressed past can fester.

Any discussion of truth commissions benefits from solid empirics. Unfortunately, we know very little about most of the approximately two dozen truth commissions that have been created thus far. Particularly for the many lesser-known commissions, this book is one of the few published sources of information on them. Hayner devotes attention to sixteen of these commissions, and gives a more extensive treatment of the five most prominent ones: Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, South Africa, and Guatemala.

With these many examples on the table, Hayner examines important points of variation. She discusses factors that shape the 'truth' produced, namely the nature of the mandate, time and resource constraints. There is also attention to the opportunities and constraints created by the use of sophisticated databases. A look inside commissions reveals potential pitfalls related to sponsorship, management, methodology, and timing. She argues that a mixed domestic-international commission is the most effective. Extensive discussion covers the question of whether commissions should name the accused, a controversial point given that truth commissions do not have the protections of rights of the accused that trials typically do. Challenges also exist in obtaining information. In many circumstances, connections to civil society can prove crucial for finding evidence and spreading their message. As examples illustrate, however, this relationship is not always smooth.

There is also an oft-asserted claim that there is a trade-off between achieving truth and justice. Hayner examines this contention and concludes that in a number of cases truth commissions proved supportive of later prosecution, despite the frequent offer of amnesty. What is more, in most circumstances, prosecution is not available. In fact, she argues, truth commissions and trials serve different purposes, so cannot be seen as alternatives to each other. She concludes that truth commissions can prove supportive of achieving justice. A chapter also suggests how such bodies would interact with the new International Criminal Court.

Truth commissions are ultimately forward-looking and so an important dimension is how they can shape the new era. Hayner discusses the potential for reconciliation, an often mentioned but poorly defined term. She argues that truth commissions can contribute to national reconciliation, but not on the individual level. Given their lack of power, one key means of influence is through setting the agenda through issuing recommendations in their final report. These recommendations are intended to prevent a recurrence of past abuses. While a systematic review of the implementation record of truth commissions is lacking, Hayner contends it has not been very good. Reparations have also often proved a significant part of transitional justice and there is discussion of the ways in which truth-seeking is connected to reparations.

Hayner is careful to caution not only against expecting too much of truth commissions, but also to be wary of pressuring states to create them. Rather, societal wishes should be respected (although it is not always clear how one might determine this). Extensive discussion of Mozambique and Cambodia are used to illustrate examples where domestic consensus to leave the past alone should not be challenged by the international community.

The conduct of truth commissions is ever-evolving as Hayner frequently emphasizes. Some half-dozen commissions have been created since the book's publication. They are increasingly being used in conjunction with trials, for example. It is unlikely, however, that this will result in the book being quickly obsolete. Despite evolving practice, the themes and issues have continued relevance.