Truth and Justice

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Truth and Justice

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

What are the best practices in creating accountability and mitigating impunity?

How can communities collectively share and engage with painful truths?

In what ways do/should collective memory and narratives from the past impact the reconciliation and justice process?

How can practitioners engage parties that created harm and are reluctant to revisit the past?

What role should international players have with assisting communities intending to engage with justice efforts?

Can you have justice while ensuring impunity?

Should forgiveness be discussed in the practice of reconciliation? How do we define forgiveness in this context?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.

RE: Sharing examples of collective memory and narrative

I'm sharing a powerful article that appeared in the New York Times on April 4, 2014.  The story, Portraits of Reconciliation illustrates clearly how each person has their own story to share and thus their own perspective about reconciliation, restoration, forgiveness healing:

20 years ffter the genocide in Rwanda reconciliation happens one encounter at a time:

I'm sharing words from both survivors and perpetrators.  Their words lead me to ask - what will it take to make it possible?  Each of us would likely answer differently.  We must listen closely and respond carefully so as not to lose the power of the person's unique experience and their sharing:

Viviane Karorero, Survivor                                                                                                                                                                                               “Sometimes justice does not give someone a satisfactory answer — cases are subject to corruption. But when it comes to forgiveness willingly granted, one is satisfied once and for all. When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest.”


Evasta Mukanyandwi, Survivor                                                                                                                                                                                                       “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.”


Dominique Ndahimana, Perpetrator 
"The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any  human being.”


Laurent Nsabimana, Perpetrator 
"I participated in destroying her house because we took the owner for dead. The houses that remained without owners — we thought it was better to destroy them in order to get firewood. Her forgiveness proved to me that she is a person with a pure heart.”

Hi, Louisa, I'd like to add a

Hi, Louisa, I'd like to add a caution here: Are those whose rights were violated--or their survivors, if they did not survive--only "good victims" if they do not want to forgive those who committed murder, rape or torture? The position that these crimes are not forgiveable is also morally coherent. Refusing to let your life be stopped by anger, or refusing to take part in acts of revenge, isn't the same thing as forgiveness. Forgiveness implies that the victim establishes some kind of relationship with the perpetrator (not the perpetrators' descendants), even if it is not a sustained relationship.  There are many historical examples of atrocities after which there is neither a return to violence, nor acts of revenge, but also no discourse about forgiveness. An individual decision to forgive is the choice of the individual, but if forgiveness is what some urge as the most important response after atrocity, then acts of atrocity start to look cost-free. If all acts are forgiveable, then moral choices are meaningless.

Would love to hear what others think about this!

RE: Lili for clarification...

....the comments shared in my post were not of my personal opinion nor was I suggesting that forgiveness is the most important response after experiencing an atrocity.  I shared an interesting resource and welcomed feedback.  Participants can read it and come to their own conclusions.  I agree fully with your comments, in particular choosing not to forgive as being "morally coherent".  

Our conversations here are an opportunity for the sharing of ideas and listening to the voices and story of others.  Yes, it is an individual's decision to forgive and that the language of forgiveness can be mean a myriad of different things to different people.  I would encourage participants to read some of the stories on The Forgiveness Project website to gain a broader perspective:



Thanks, Louisa! This thread is about truth and justice, so what I was trying to do was to bring justice into the conversation. It would be interesting to hear what others think about truth, justice and reconciliation, especially now that Truth Commissions have become a pretty well-established mechanism during times of transition--and even long after political transitions, when justice is still lacking (see the website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, on the Residential Schools, for example ).

RE: The Legacy of Canada's "Cultural Genocide"

Lili thaks for introducing the Truth Commissions and in particular that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  I thought visitors would be interested in journalist, Marina Cantacuzino's conversation around the Canadian Truth and Reconcilation Commission.  Marina, is the founder of the U.K based The Forgiveness Project (TFP).  TFP explores real stories of forgiveness and reconciliation in which violence and revenge are met with peaceful alternatives. Stan LaPierre, a traditional Aboriginal elder who works with youth incarcerated at Manitoba Youth Service and Cora Morgan, executive director of Onashowewin, a program providing diversion interventions focused on repairing damage were the centre of the conversation.  They believe the historical effects of the residential schools perpetuate tragedy and trauma.  That said, can the Reconciliation Commissions truly heal the past?  Can public apology break the cycle and reestablish something back which wasn't present in the first place?                                                                                                                                                              

recent ceremony at a former Residential School in Canada

I used to feel a bit skeptical about the lasting changes that the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission could make in the past, especially when I read that the vast majority of non-Indigenous Canadians weren't paying that much attention. But last year I met one of the three Commissioners, Marie Wilson, and heard her speak on how meaningful the Commission has been for residential school survivors. I was very affected by the stories she had, especially direct quotes from the survivors. And in the last couple of days there was a ceremony at a former Residential School which you can read about here: Without longterm changes in the social and economic economic deprivation in which many Indigenous people live, long term change will be hard to accomplish. Yet at least in the short term the testimony seems to indicate that participants, as witnesses testifying at the Commission or other related events, do feel some sense of transformation. From the woman profiled in the story: "“It was a release – a letting go,” Ms. Hanuse said of the ceremony. “It was the final part of my healing journey for my childhood.” Also interesting that an Anglican Bishop was present at the ceremony and made an apology.

As was just said in another commentary another section of our Conversation, reconciliation is such a multi-generational process--not least because we won't know for decades whether events like the Canada's TRC will have made a real difference!

Timor-Leste's truth & reconciliation commission: weaving the two

Between 2002-2005, I was lucky enough to be working deep in the bowels of Timor-Leste's truth commission (CAVR).

The Timorese CAVR (Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação or Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) was established in July 2001 with three main aims: to uncover the truth about human rights violations that took place from 1974 to 1999 committed by all sides; support the reintegration of those who committed “minor criminal offences and other harmful acts” through a community-based reconciliation process; and assist victims in restoring their dignity. At the end of its mandate, the CAVR was required to produce a final report with findings and recommendations that would help “to prevent the repetition of human rights violations and to respond to the needs of victims of human rights violations”.

By 2005, we collected eight thousand stories during the life of Timor-Leste’s truth commission. Examined and analyzed each of them. Sometimes the task felt overwhelming, leafing through story after story of atrocities, one after another. Somehow we had to objectively classify this as one kind of human right violation, neatly boxed into different categories, entered into a database, and spat back out in graphs and tables. It is as if we were trying to make some sense of the madness, grasping onto straws to try to bring some semblance of rational thought into a wilderness of debauchery. We worked for 18 months collecting these stories, then we gave ourselves six months to write a ‘final report.’ At the end we needed two more extensions, granted by parliament. It took as just as long to write the final report as it did to take all the testimonies and organize a dozen hearings and more than a hundred community reconciliation meetings. The report we put together tried to capture the voices of 8000 victims and witnesses who brought their stories to the commission.

By the end of the three year period, we were proud of what we had achieved. We were able to create a micro-cosmos of the new society envisioned and articulated in the recommendations of the CAVR report. We felt confident that we have, to the best of our abilities, created a transformative mechanism. We took to heart the words of Aniceto Guterres Lopes, the chair of the CAVR when he said, “The very essence of the Commission’s work is to assist transformation. The fabric of our social relationships has been destroyed – our work is to transform our experience of the dark of yesterday into a positive tomorrow.”

Two things stick out for me, from this experience:

1) Putting Victims at the Heart of the Commission & Community-based Approaches: One of the national commissioners’ first policy decisions was to “put victims at the heart of the Commission’s work”. We established a Victim Support Division and district teams conducted a consultation in each sub-district to list key human rights events. Results of these consultations helped form national and sub-district strategies for statement-taking and community reconciliation.

The CAVR developed a community-based approach where district teams stayed in each sub-district for three months. These teams conducted a public meeting to explain its mandate and activities, facilitate a mapping of human rights violations that took place in local communities, take statements from victims and witnesses, and facilitated a reconciliation process (which I will speak about below). The three-month period was closed with a one-day event: a victim’s hearing and a report-back by CAVR staff about all their activities in that sub-district. A special program of ‘cultural celebrations’ was provided to mark the end of each three-month process.

As mentioned, another CAVR innovation was to facilitate a participatory mapping to document human rights violations and their impact as experienced by local communities.  Based on these discussions, a community profile on human rights violations was compiled comprising a detailed timeline of key human rights events that took place in the community, and sketch maps of the area marked with symbols signifying important places and events related to human rights violations.

[Fast-forward more than a decade later, we [AJAR, my NGO]  have adapted these participatory processes in our work with victims in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.] I think this is one of the most important take-aways from CAVR, the re-creation new tools for grassroots participation in truth-seeking. I will share, later on, how this is important in contexts where impunity and denial are the dominant trends.

2) Community reconciliation for perpetrators of lesser crimes: CAVR designed a process to deal with the thousands of returning militias, assisting them in their reintegration back into their communities. The process was unique because the community reconciliation process was designed to complement the court process. We provided an opportunity for perpetrators of lesser crimes (not rape, murder, or the organising of violence) to give CAVR a written statement, disclosing acts that had harmed the community. This meant that perpetrators who committed rape, murder, and were complicit in the organising of the violence were to be put on trial in the serious crimes process.  After these statements were vetted by the Office of the Prosecutor General, the CAVR organised a community reconciliation hearing. The perpetrator faced his community, confessed his wrongdoings, asked for forgiveness and listened to the victims and members of the community. A panel comprising CAVR Regional Commissioners and community representatives mediated an agreement where the perpetrator agreed to certain acts of reconciliation. These included rebuilding houses, giving cattle to victims or merely promising never to repeat the offence. Once these promises were fulfilled, the reconciliation agreement was registered with the District Court that, in turn, granted the perpetrator a stay of immunity for the confessed and forgiven acts. CAVR facilitated 216 reconciliation involving more than 1300 perpetrators.

The reconciliation process received much attention internationally. It was considered an important innovation, a truth commission venturing into “security sector reform” territory. It also created a space where reconciliation could take place at a local level, in a very concrete way.  As we were closing the doors of the commission, many more approached us wanting to enter this process.

One of the lessons learned: you need some truth, in order to take that first step towards reconciliation.. 10 years later the journey is not ended. Much more to do. You can see the reports, and some discussion of issues on  


on victims and the peace process in Colombia

It will be interesting to see whether Colombia, now in the midst of peace negotiations to end the conflict there, takes any lessons from East Timor's CAVR process. The peace negotiations have emphasized the importance of the victims of the conflict, which is one of the six key points on the agenda for negotiations. This is something completely original for a peace process. Victims have been brought to Havana to testify and share their goals for and ideas about justice and reconciliation processes. Care has been taken to include the voices of those not often heard in peace negotiations, including women, indigenous people and LGBT groups. A good place to follow this historical process is Virginia Bouvier's blog, Colombia Calling. Some relevant posts are the following: on the Historical Commission on the Conflict and Its Victims, which was established in August 2014 and is just finishing its work, which will help to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission-type body: . And on the role of victims in the peace process: .

The reintegration of members of militant groups will also be a big issue for Colombia, closely tied to reconciliation as how these people can relate to the communities they either return to, or choose to settle in, and how they will handle violence in the past, will be critical for reconciliation.

Galuh, have you worked directly with anyone from Colombia? It would be an interesting conversation!

RE: Some more thoughts about healing, justice and forgiveness

Critical to the future are the stories and memories that can be shared in a way that encourage healing and reconciliation and do not     re-traumatize. Personal narratives can broaden perspectives and bring healing to those impacted -- whether victim or perpetrator -- as well as to motivate others regarding future life choices.  Storytelling can be a powerful tool that serves as encouragement for people to act on the stories - As religious historian, Karen Armstrong  says - “Let's use...stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people's stories and histories”.   

Dr James Smith, co-founder of Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, stresses that although there are some remarkable examples of people who've been able to reconcile or forgive they are a minority and not representative of how the majority feel. "Yet" he concludes, "...there is a co-existence....that allows society to function”.

Overall it's imperative to stress that forgiveness must never be sanitized or glorified; it is difficult, painful and costly, and can also be one of the crucial ingredients to transforming deep and unresolved pain.