Truth Acknowledgement and Truth Commissions

According to the survey of Priscilla Hayner, there were 21 truth commissions in the period from 1970s to early 2001. Most of them were established in Africa and Latin America.[1] Among them, some truth commissions were established when the conflict were still going on such as those in Nepal and Sri Lanka. In terms of size, impacts, and functions, major truth commissions were all in Latin America and Africa.

Establishing truth commissions is a very popular reconciliation effort, for it aims to meet the public demand for truth telling from the victims. In this aspect, truth commissions could contribute to conflict transformation by creating spaces where people feel safe and can honestly talk about their fears and hopes, hurts and responsibilities. A truth commission, if carefully designed and properly mandated, can have considerable psychological impact, not only on the victims and perpetrators at the personal level, but in the structural dimension as well. As archbishop Desmond Tutu argues, a truth commission was probably the most appropriate mechanism to reconcile the people in South Africa and, more importantly, to transform the country given its specific political and social circumstances.[2]

It should be noted, however, that people very often place excessively high expectations for the outcomes that a truth commission can deliver. Time and again, victims may expect a truth commission to dispense justice and make reparations in addition to simply seeking and making public the truth. As a result, those expectations are not generally met, because the mandates and performance of truth commissions very much depend on other factors such as political will of the government, social environment, the remnant power of wrongdoers, and levels of economic development. If people grow frustrated and disappointed with truth commissions, they may lose their trust in the overall reconciliation process. It is, therefore, necessary to combine a truth commission with other reconciliation efforts including reparation and restorative justice, among others.


Although most cases of reparation and restitution take place after a conflict ends, restitution can still function in a conflict situation by, as Barkan argues, providing a dialogue that focuses on mutual recognition of identity and perceived histories.[3] Lederach rightly observes that a central challenge for transformation is to 'encourage people to address and articulate a positive sense of identity in relationship to others.'[4] Reparation and restitution, therefore, can open up the possibility of using dialogues on restitution as an alternative to conflict. In Barkan's words, restitution may become a force in resolving conflicts and promote reconciliation.[5]

Retributive Justice: Trials or Amnesty

In the popular sentiment, retributive justice is probably the most common response to injustices and wrongdoings. The propensity for retributive justice since time immemorial is also reinforced by the liberal human rights tradition that dates back to as early as the Enlightenment. Based on several central concepts of desert, the rule of law, human rights, and democracy, advocates of the liberal human rights tradition 'place a premium on the punishment of perpetrators and the vindications of victims in response to large scale crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other human rights violations.'[6]

Since retributive justice mostly focuses on the past wrongdoings of individual perpetrators, it is not mainly concerned with either relational context of the conflict or the forward-looking goal of conflict transformation, except perhaps for its marginal deterrence effect. As political scientists Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri argue, the motivation to achieve retributive justice through trials and tribunals may backfire in terms of building the rule of law and democracy. They maintain that historical evidence suggests well designed amnesty may prove more effective in promoting the rule of law, at least in the transitional period.[7] Retributive justice, therefore, should be carefully pursued, in combination with restorative justice and other reconciliation efforts, to enhance its contribution to conflict transformation.

Apology and Forgiveness

Apology and forgiveness can occur at the private level only or may also affect the interpersonal relationship. As Barkan and Karn observes, apology can help 'bridge the victim's need for acknowledgment and the perpetrator's desire to reclaim humanity.'[8] The same function can be said of forgiveness, which may be defined not only as a form of acknowledgment but also an obligation toward the repentant offender.[9] Conceived as such, both apology and forgiveness may contribute to restoring the relationship between perpetrators and victims that were served because of injustices and injuries inflicted by the conflict. The causal mechanism involved is that they helps define the past in a mutually agreed-upon manner between the victims and the perpetrators, thus shaping the identities of both through a process called re-negotiating history. It should be noted here that mutually redefining the past, re-negotiating the history, and shaping each side's identity by both sides are crucial to any attempts to address the 'root causes' of social conflict.


This essay argues that, despite the conventional wisdom that reconciliation can only begin after a peace agreement ends a conflict, various efforts for reconciliation can be integrated into the framework of conflict transformation. It begins by examining the concept of reconciliation and the perspective of conflict transformation. It goes on to argue that there is a great consistent overlapping area between the two, reflected in a shared focus on contextual relationship, a similar longer timeframe, an identical forward-looking nature, and the same level-crossing presence. Therefore, reconciliation can and should be integrated into different steps of conflict transformation. In fact, implementation of some crucial efforts for reconciliation including truth acknowledgment, reparation, apology, forgiveness, and even retributive justice could make different contributions to realizing the goal of conflict transformation.

By Dan Sinh Nguyen Vo

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[1] Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (New York: Routledge, 2001), 32-71.

[2] Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (NY: Doubleday, 1999).

[3] Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustice (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2000).

[4] John Paul Lederach and Michelle Maiese, "Conflict Transformation," Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003.

[5] Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustice (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2000).

[6] Daniel Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field".

[7] Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri, "Trial and Errors," International Security, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 5-44.

[8] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[9] Solomon Schimmel, Wounds Not Healed by Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 46.


Dan Sinh Nguyen Vo holds a BA in international relations from the Institute for International Relations in Hanoi (2003). He worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Home Affairs at the Institute for International Relations under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2006, Sinh has worked at the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City as a teaching assistant and tenure-track lecturer in international relations. He has taught courses in international relations and has contributed to course syllabi in international relations theory, security, and conflict resolution.