Establishing a formal truth commission to investigate and acknowledge gross human rights violations

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was initiated by national legislation in 1995, after a period of public debate. Its mandate was to collect information about gross human rights violations committed by state bodies or the armed opposition during apartheid and its goal was to promote national unity and reconcili­ation. The Commission was expected to offer suggestions for policy reforms to prevent future abuses. In addition to amnesty and human rights hearings, special hearings focused on abuses suffered by women and children, and others were held on the role of faith communities, the medical establishment, the legal sector, the business com­munity and other institutions that had passively or actively contributed to rights violations. Hearings were held all around the country and the broadcast media carried clips and live coverage. All media covered the TRC exten­sively through the duration of the Commission.

Twenty thousand victims provided testimony. To make the process as comfortable for victims as possible, the TRC used briefers (also an interesting tactic), who were chosen from the caring professions — ministers, social workers, and nurses, among others — and offered support to the victims before, during and after the process. The briefers received extensive training on the process and the structure of the Commission.

One unique aspect of the Commission’s mandate was a conditional amnesty for perpetrators of human rights violations willing to publicly admit the details of their actions. Criteria for amnesty included full disclosure of the crimes as well as a determination that the acts were politically motivated. This conditional amnesty was a policy not attempted in previous truth commissions of this magnitude and it resulted in public confessions detailing many of the most notorious crimes of the apartheid era, including the 1977 murder of activist Steven Biko. Am­nesty was not guaranteed for those who provided testimony, though steps for prosecution of those who were not granted amnesty or did not come forward to testify have not been implemented.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report was released in seven volumes between 1998 and 2002. Though its long-term impact remains to be seen, some of the report’s immediate achievements include recom­mendations on how to prevent future violations, which have influenced the new government, and the collection of indisputable documentation of human rights abuses during the apartheid era. It is important to note that the TRC has not fulfilled all of its expectations. None of the abusers who refused to testify have yet been prosecuted, although the process allows for this, and the country continues to struggle with the issue of reparations.


For information on the "victim accompaniment" tactic within the context of the South African TRC, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

In the past two decades, several countries emerging from long periods of abuse have created forums for victims, and sometimes perpetrators, to tell their stories. The truth-telling process can draw victims out of isolation; abusive regimes often maintain levels of secrecy that keep victims from knowing that their neighbors are suf­fering as well. Ideally, these truth-telling tactics engage the entire population, or at least large segments of it, so as to foster healing rather than be divisive.

Truth commissions are one kind of truth-telling tactic used by governments to start the process of reconcilia­tion. Their mandates, which outline their purpose and authority, are typically established by country’s legisla­tive or executive bodies. In South Africa, a strategic decision was made at the end of apartheid to create a truth commission process rather than simply holding trials to prosecute perpetrators of gross human rights viola­tions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the country’s parliament with a mandate to establish as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights committed, by all sides of the conflict, between March 1, 1960, and May 10, 1994.

Truth commissions have been convened in dozens of countries and situations with a variety of mandates and results. Some are given subpoena powers, while others have no significant judicial tools at their disposal. Some hold open or even televised hearings, others work almost entirely behind closed doors. Some commissions recommend financial or other reparations for surviving victims and, in an effort to prevent future human rights violations, many have been asked to make substantial recommendations for changes in the political, military, police or judicial structures, or in the social or educational spheres.

Glenda Wildschut, a former commissioner on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, notes that the commission operated under some limitations. Among them, the TRC:

  • examined only gross violations of human rights. Victims of forced removals, land dispossession, the mixed marriages act and a host of other legislation could not seek recourse from the TRC
  • reparations committee was mandated only to make policy recommendations to parliament, while the amnesty committee had the power to grant immediate amnesty
  • had to cover a period of 34 years — from 1960 to 1994 — in just three years of work
  • had very few resources to provide emotional and psychological support for victims.

The tactic is still controversial. Some believe that truth commissions add to people’s suffering and feelings of powerlessness because abuses come to light without punishment for perpetrators, or that the commissions can be used as a substitute for legal action. Others argue that deeply divided societies cannot press legal prosecu­tion without strengthening the resolves and power of perpetrators to resist democratic change. But truth com­missions can be used as part of a larger strategy that includes both truth-telling and punishment for abusers, or, as in the case of Argentina, may help create the political climate needed to begin prosecution.