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“Can Truth Commissions Effectively Strengthen Peace Processes?”

Greentree, New York

“We have learnt that justice is not an impediment to peace – it is an essential partner.”

Opening Remarks by Kofi Annan – High Level Symposium “Challenging the Conventional: Can Truth Commissions Effectively Strengthen Peace Processes?”

 13 November 2013, Greentree Foundation, New York

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for joining us today for this symposium.

I am delighted to see so many friends and former colleagues here this morning.

Let me preface my remarks by warmly thanking the Government of Finland for its generous support, which has made this event possible.

I want also to thank David and his colleagues at the International Centre for Transitional Justice for their great support and hard work in preparing for the symposium.

Over the past couple of decades, the United Nations, the international community and individual nations have struggled to find the right responses to the devastating legacies of failed states, mass atrocities and even genocide.

In numerous cases, an important part of the response has been the establishment, in one form or another, of a truth and reconciliation commission.

The number of such commissions has grown rapidly.

In the decades before 1990 only 7 had been established, 11 were created in the following ten years and from 2000 to 2010 a full 22 commissions began their work.

Truth seeking and reconciliation has now become an accepted, if not universal, feature of the architecture of post conflict peacebuilding.

But, as with all conventional practices, from time to time one should pause for reflection to ensure that those practices remain relevant and effective.

We can perhaps begin our reflection with some thoughts from Archbishop Tutu, who as you all know led the South African truth commission.

He pointed out that the key challenge for post-apartheid South Africa was how to deal with the past and how South Africans should go about coming to terms with it.

Archbishop Tutu concerns are germane not only to post-Apartheid South Africa; they resonate with equal force in many other societies that are emerging from traumatic periods of violent conflict or repression.

Peacemakers must ask the same questions as they strive to end contemporary conflicts:

-How can the truth be fully exposed and documented?

-How can violence be ended while accountability still ensured?

-How can we secure justice for victims?

I am often asked, should peace come before justice?

From my own experience with countries as different as Rwanda, Bosnia and Timor-Leste, I can say that we have learnt that justice is not an impediment to peace – it is an essential partner.

I believe that when we abandon justice to secure peace, we are most likely to get neither.

Indeed, impunity can, and has, contributed to renewed conflict as we see in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Of course, the parallel pursuit of justice and peace does present difficult challenges for peace-makers.

My advice is that we must be ambitious enough to pursue both, and wise enough to know when to do so.

But there are critical moments in a peace process when principle must prevail over pragmatism – without denying, of course, that very real constraints may sometimes exist.

I recall that I instructed my representative at the Lome peace talks on Sierra Leone in 1999 to enter a reserve on a clause in the peace agreement relating to amnesty.

The UN could not accept a blanket amnesty as the clause stipulated. Subsequently, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, some of the perpetrators tried to hide behind that provision.

Fortunately, the UN’s refusal to endorse the clause was an argument successfully deployed to refute the calls for exoneration by those subsequently accused and tried for war crimes.

It is sometimes argued that to move forward after a conflict, past atrocities need to be put aside until such a time when the social fabric might be strong enough to deal with them.

I agree that we cannot prescribe how individual victims should deal with the past.

But societies as a whole cannot build legitimate institutions grounded in the rule of law and respect for human rights if latent conflicts and bitterness about the past prevail unaddressed.

So how should truth seeking figure in the complicated web of interests that underlie peace processes?

The human rights activists among you will point out that societies and individuals are entitled to know the truth about mass human rights violations.

It is a human right and a value in itself. We should not silence the past.

As the historian George Santayana has said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

When opening the Rome Conference which established the International Criminal Court, I told delegates that “the eyes of the victims of past crimes, and of the potential victims of future ones, are fixed firmly upon us.”

And this is equally true for those trying to strengthen non-judicial mechanisms, like truth commissions: we should keep victims’ interests at the heart of our efforts.

Truth-seeking can give a voice to victims and their families and perhaps help them to find closure.

Truth seeking can help determine the accountability of individuals.

However, truth seeking is not only about individual responsibility; it’s also about society, about the state and its institutions.

This is the truth that is needed for making changes to the system, for reforms that can learn from past failures and prevent future ones.

Truth commissions can help that process by recognizing and recording the failings of the past, ideally when memories are fresh and not dulled or distorted by the passage of time.

Nevertheless, I would caution peace-makers that truth seeking cannot substitute for criminal justice.

Both are essential building blocks in the reformation of the state and the healing of societies riven by brutality.

So too is reconciliation even though we should recognize that reconciliation is a long-term process, not an event.

So peace makers as they work to craft peace agreements should carefully balance these elements.

Unfortunately, the gap between popular expectations and what can be realistically achieved by truth commissions has sometimes led to disappointment and indeed disillusionment with the peace process itself.

One of the obvious lessons of experience, therefore, is that the mandates of truth commissions should not be overloaded nor open ended.

From the background material prepared for the symposium, it is clear that many commissions have struggled to meet the ambitions of their mandates.

They have also not kept the public well informed, which undermines their credibility.

So in aspiring to integrate truth and reconciliation mechanisms into peace processes and agreements, I believe it is now necessary to identify useful and essential minimum standards.

Peacemakers should help the principals distinguish the desirable from the achievable.

At the same time, let’s remember that every post-conflict context has some unique characteristics. One size does not fit all.

However, in truth seeking, as in other mechanisms that are aimed at supporting peaceful transitions, we must always recall that cohesive and healthy societies rest on three pillars:

-Peace and security;

-Development; and the

-Rule of law and respect for human rights.

There can be no long-term security without development, and there can be no long-term development without security.

And no society can long remain prosperous without the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Truth seeking is a way forward to that essential but often elusive goal.

That is where the strength and contribution of truth commissions to peace processes lies.

I very much hope, therefore, that the deliberations of this symposium will aid peacemakers, present and future, to strengthen peace processes through the quest for truth and reconciliation.

Thank you.


“We have learnt that justice is not an impediment to peace – it is an essential partner.”