The Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Eric Brahm

July, 2005

After then-Chilean President Augusto Pinochet unexpectedly lost a referendum on his government's performance in 1988, it triggered democratic elections that brought Patricio Aylwin to the presidency in 1990. Alywin's election platform centered on truth, justice, addressing political prisoners, and reparations (Quinn 2001). In part responding to public pressure (Ensalaco 1994), the government created a truth commission only a month after Aylwin assumed power.

The commission was presented as a compromise solution, the lesser of two evils to both those on the left and right of the political spectrum (Barahona de Brito 1993). For a number of reasons, trials were not in the offing. Despite having lost the referendum, Pinochet retained significant support during and after the transition, which allowed him to influence the transition's course and to retain significant powers under the new democratic government.

Aylwin's advisors were also mindful of the unrest in Argentina after the new democratic government there pursued prosecution of military leaders in the 1980s. What is more, a 1978 amnesty law enacted by the Pinochet regime restricted prosecution for prior crimes. Some have argued that the amnesty undermined the commission's work (Tepperman 2002). However, evidence collected by the Chilean commission was turned over to the judiciary (Abrams and Hayner 2002). This became significant after Pinochet's detention in London launched a wave of judicial action in Chile, which resulted, among other things, in the Chilean Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that the 1978 amnesty did not apply to disappearances because they were an ongoing crime (Hayner 2001).

Commonly known as the Rettig Commission after its chairman, the truth commission was composed of an even split of representatives from Pinochet supporters and opponents (Popkin and Roht-Arriaza 1995). Over the course of nine months, it was given four primary tasks:

  • to establish as complete a picture as possible of human rights violations under the Pinochet regime;
  • to gather evidence to allow for victims to be identified;
  • to recommend reparations; and
  • to recommend legal and administrative measures to prevent a repetition of past abuses.

Human rights activists criticized the commission's mandate, which was limited in that it was only allowed to investigate crimes resulting in death (Ensalaco 1994; Hamber 1998). Specifically, it investigated "disappearances after arrest, executions, and torture leading to death committed by government agents or people in their service, as well as kidnappings and attempts on the life of persons carried out by private citizens for political reasons." (cited in Hayner 2001)

The Rettig Commission was aided in its work by a staff of sixty. It also got assistance from NGOs that provided information (Hayner 2001). It had freedom to move about to gather information and testimony (Quinn 2001), but received little help from the military (Hayner 2001; Quinn 2001). In total, the commission investigated 3,400 cases of death and reached definitive conclusions on all but 641 (Ensalaco 1994). It attributed 95% of the rimes to the military, which Hayner (2001) asserts debunked the military's justification it was responding to 'internal war.' While the commission did not name perpetrators, provisions were made that they would be made public in 2016 (Quinn 2001). They were not able to determine the fate of many other disappeared, largely due to lack of cooperation by the military (Mattarollo 2002).

The Rettig Commission completed its work by submitting the findings in its final report to the government. Aylwin made an impassioned nationally televised address introducing the report and apologizing on behalf of society to victims. The report called on the state and all of society to acknowledge and accept responsibility for past crimes and offer moral and material reparations meant to restore the dignity of victims (Amstutz 2005). Recommendations centered on reparations, education, legal reform, and taking steps to further clarify the fate of the disappeared (Popkin and Roht-Arriaza 1995). It recommended a number of creative reparation schemes related to health, education, and housing benefits (Ensalaco 1994). Perhaps above all, much attention was focused on judicial affairs (Bronkhorst 1995). At the same time, the commission stopped short of recommending a wholesale overhaul of the judiciary or the military (Popkin and Roht-Arriaza 1995). All commissioners agreed on the findings (Hayner 2001).

Following Aylwin's speech, the report was widely discussed in the media and conservative and moderate political leaders expressed contrition (Amstutz 2005). There was not a wide printing of the original Spanish version of the report (Quinn 2001), but it was printed as an insert in a daily newspaper (Hayner 2001). While the army and navy condemned the report as biased and incomplete (they contested the interpretation, not the facts), the police and air force acknowledged the report's general conclusions (Amstutz 2005). There were follow-up plans centering on reconciliation and education and the National Congress unanimously passed a resolution commending the report. However, a series of attacks by the armed Left against right-wing politicians, including the murder of right wing leader, Jaime Guzman, soon after the report's release, overshadowed it and effectively ended discussion about the report (Hayner 2001; Human Rights Watch 1991; Mattarollo 2002). Six months later, Aylwin declared the period of reconciliation over (Quinn 2001).

What has been the legacy of the truth commission? The Concertacion, Aylwin's political coalition, enacted a number of laws following the recommendations of the Rettig Commission (Quinn 2001). The government undertook a thorough review of constitutional and legal provisions with respect to human rights (Ensalaco 1994). Finding the disappeared was acted upon quickly, as were reparations and some legal reforms, but other recommendations have faded into obscurity (Popkin and Roht-Arriaza 1995). A follow-up body, the National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation, was created in January 1992 and helped to forward recommendations for two years (Hayner 1996). It also recommended the creation of a human rights ombudsman (Ensalaco 1994).

There have been significant consequences for victims. The truth commission allowed victims' families to be relieved from administrative and legal limbo due to their status as 'disappeared' (Ensalaco 1994). Because their loved ones had not be confirmed dead, benefits could not be extended. Just under 5,000 people receive a monthly 'pension' as families of those killed or disappeared, which amounts to about $5,000 per year (Hayner 2001). Survivors of torture or illegal imprisonment which are much bigger numbers, unfortunately, are not eligible because of the restricted mandate (Hayner 2000). However, the report and Aylwin's apology was a "turning point in gaining respect for victims and advancing public understanding of the country's past." (Hayner, 2000: 352)

In terms of the impact on the military, although the dismissal of officers was not possible, the truth commission report forced the military to defend a period they liked to think of as their crowning achievement (Ensalaco 1994). In short, the report's publication stripped the military's control over history. The continued power of Pinochet, however, is seen as a weakness of the commission. (Quinn 2001). This has begun to change as Pinochet's detention in London on a Spanish arrest warrant in 1998 has unleashed new legal wranglings in Chile over the past.

The broader public's reaction to the commission's work has been mixed. Amstutz (2005) argues that, while in operation, the commission never caught the public's imagination due to its brevity and that its operation was not public. As it concluded its work, sixty-eighty percent of Chileans approved of the Rettig commission (Pion-Berlin 1994). "While most Chileans were widely in favor of the truth commission's work and praised Aylwin for his sensitive and symbolically important address on the report's findings, there were widely different perceptions about the effect truth telling had on reconciliation." (Amstutz 2005: 155-156) Shortly after the report's release, nearly the same percentage of the public believed the findings did not advance reconciliation as those that did (Human Rights Watch 1991). While Amstutz (2005) argues the commission's revelations and Aylwin's acknowledgment helped restore public trust and renew democratic political culture, the message appeared to only reach moderates. He further notes that, by contrast to moderates, it reinforced divisions between left and right. In this environment, for years afterward, there was little public discussion on the past (Hayner 2001).

Despite initial action outlined above, addressing the past has often been overshadowed by other national concerns. While some may interpret this as a sign that reconciliation, or peaceful coexistence at any rate, has been achieved, human rights activists, in particular, do not feel the past has been adequately addressed. Hayner (2001) observed in 1996 that Chileans insisted reconciliation had been achieved, but there was still great reluctance to discuss the past. Furthermore, the public response to Pinochet's arrest in London suggests the past was not settled. "[I]n the aftermath of Pinochet's arrest, the wounds of the past, especially those related to missing victims, appeared to be more evident at the beginning of the new millennium than in 1990 when democracy resumed in Chile." (Amstutz 2005: 158) Since his return to Chile, the country, and Pinochet in particular, has been on a legal rollercoaster as efforts continue in some way to go beyond the truth commission's work to find him legally accountable.


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