1984, Today: The Rise of “Truth Commissions” in Postwar Transitions

The flight of Edward Snowden from the United States has raised some awkward questions for the American establishment. Could the US, which so deftly portrayed itself as a victim of Chinese hacking just a few months prior, itself be a “hacker empire”? Could American citizens, who cry out for the internet freedoms of Russians and Chinese, themselves be victims of intensive surveillance of their personal communications? For many commentators, the answer is easy. Surveillance is justified when performed by a democracy, rather than by an authoritarian state. So, it would follow, is aggressive war, and the state-sponsored rewriting of history textbooks in order to consolidate peace.

Textbook CensorshipThe last one in the list might be a bit jarring. “Censorship”, “propaganda”, and “revisionism”: all of these ideas strongly connote intervention by a non-democratic state. Indeed, the subject of this article will not be found in northwest Europe or northeast Asia, because both areas are independent, and harbor varied historiographical traditions and a skeptical public. Instead—as was the case during the Cold War—new and radical ideas are being fought out by proxy, in “Third World” countries and with minimal participation by indigenous actors. Unlike during that time, however, the ultimate fear of the great powers is now not global nuclear war, but civil war and genocide.

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 was, for the “international community”, an event of cataclysmic significance, comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in the United States. CNN and the 24-hour news cycle quickly shattered traditional norms of non-intervention as an international “humanitarian” industry cropped up to monitor and arrest ethnic violence at ever-earlier stages. As a result, after the Srebrenica massacre happened in Bosnia in 1995, NATO warplanes leveled the country, forcing an uneasy peace and bringing in international “experts” from the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. Their task was to construct a lasting, pluralistic democracy from a war-torn society that had never known one. And what better way to create a fresh political society than rigorous, systematized education?

In an era where multiculturalism reigns supreme, or at least in academe, the traditional nationalist solution to diversity (ethnic separatism, cleansing, and self-determination) has become unfashionable, to put it mildly. Even when the intention is peaceful or good, there is no analogous process to “denazification” for ethnically divided societies. During the Bosnian War, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks all had their own school systems, which inculcated into children a worldview and knowledge of historical events that aggrandized one’s own ethnic group and denigrated the others. In 2000, the Council of Europe resolved to “standardize” and “integrate” the remnants of this fractured educational system. Naturally, part of the job of eradicating the “offensive” and “inaccurate” parts of ethnic curricula involves getting down to the “truth” of what really happened in history.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights - Santiago, Chile

Museum of Memory and Human Rights – Santiago, Chile

Enter the Truth Commission. The government of Chile created the world’s first “National Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in 1990, in order to lubricate the prosecution of anticommunist henchmen from the 1970s and 80s’ dictatorship. The Commission was not a court: it heard testimonio, which connotes a kind of semi-literary rant or story-telling, rather than a sworn deposition, as in the English “testimony”. As an aid to traditional modes of justice, this exposure of truth-by-tear-letting genuinely led to reconciliation, but only because of the specific nature of the crime. Families had worried themselves sick about the disappearance of their political activist relatives—so much so that a chance to hear and tell the “truth” about their deaths was enough to grieve over and forgive.

What was once a quaint, characteristically “Chilean” institution became a worldwide phenomenon after the crumbling of South African apartheid from 1994. The permanent enfranchisement of an aggrieved and long-suppressed racial majority necessitated the rebuilding of nearly all of the country’s institutions, including its educational system. This time, the Truth Commission demanded not only “The Truth”, but “The Whole Truth”, even to the point of granting amnesty to fallen Afrikaners who confessed to their racial crimes against their new overlords. When the time came to incorporate this new understanding into history teaching, however, independent university academics were able to resist the black nationalist push. While they were unable to pioneer a postmodern curricula that emphasized multiple historical perspectives, the ensuing stalemate resulted in a de-emphasis on historical education altogether, in favor of “modern”, economically “useful” subjects like computers and IT.

Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu who spearheaded the South African T&RC. Remains a polarizing figuring in debate over “one man’s justice as another man’s injustice”.

In Rwanda, where civil society is much weaker, the process of creating “truth” has largely succeeded to propagate politically useful (if ahistorical) narratives in schools. Few laymen would dispute today, even in the West, that the division between Hutu and Tutsi was “artificial”, or that Rwanda’s ethnic groups were united before the advent of European colonialism. European imperialists might be a safe scapegoat here from a war-and-peace perspective, but the nurturing of new hatreds is never a cause to celebrate, and the grafting of this model onto other countries’ conflicts could be disastrous. Already, the spread of Truth Commissions has reached self-parodying proportions, such as when President Noynoy Aquino created a “Truth Commission” upon his election in 2010 to investigate misconduct by the Phillippine administration that immediately preceded his own. As George Orwell imagined in 1984, when censorship is regarded as too violent or technically impracticable, authoritarians work overtime to create and disseminate favored memories.

Historiographical disputes are corrosive to weak regimes, who are wary of violence and eager to demonstrate pliability and progress to international aid donors. But a necessary step in the transition to democracy requires a school system that inculcates the value of seeing history from multiple perspectives. Liberal democracy is not just about votes; it’s how we interact with each other after the ballots are filed and counted, and that’s not to erupt into riots or descend into civil war. Countries that peacefully manage changes of power do so because citizens understand that their opponents are not telling lies, but are merely seeing the world through a different lens of assumptions and emphases. When government is not neutral in the creation of historical narratives, such as when it privileges previously oppressed groups by creating a Truth Commission, then it sends the message that the memories and experiences of not all citizens are valued. In a true democracy, there is strength in diversity, and no place for revenge by the aggrieved through kangaroo courts or commissions.

James Carroll (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Jamesprofile (1)James Carroll is a Rutgers student studying for his B.A. in political science. He regularly geeks out over the histories of China’s borderlands, but loves nothing more than to expose the ironies and hypocrisies of “dissident” and anti-authoritarian movements. As a connoisseur of all things queer, sarcastic, and sublime, James is always ready to have his worldview challenged by his adversaries, and expects the same respect from all of his readers.

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