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Current & Recent Research at Penn Law

Author: Sirleaf, Matiangai
Citation: The Truth About Truth Commissions: Why they do not Function Optimally in Post-Conflict Societies, 35 CARDOZO L. REV. (2014).
Date Published: Forthcoming
Date Posted: 09/25/2013
Subjects: Human Rights Law
Law and Criminal Justice
Law and the Global Community
Keywords: Alternative Dispute Resolution
Comparative Law
Human Rights Law
International Law
Law and Society
Almost 40 years after the first truth commission convened and more than 67 countries around the world employed them, there is little clarity on how these bodies contribute to their stated objectives and in which transitional contexts they succeed or fail. This article uses data gathered from my field research in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to analyze truth commissions’ efficacy from the perspectives of victims and the affected societies. Using insights from the legal transplant literature and applying it to the diffusion of truth commissions, this article finds that truth commissions face greater challenges carrying out their mandates in post-conflict as opposed to post-authoritarian societies. My key variable approach helps to illuminate which contexts truth commissions may be the most effective. In post-conflict societies, weak institutions to support a truth-telling process, combined with large numbers of victims and perpetrators will tend to overwhelm truth commissions. These factors, along with the lack of moral consensus surrounding mass violence interact to make truth commissions function less optimally in post-conflict contexts. This article finds that despite their widespread use in post-conflict and fragile states, truth commissions may have more utility in post-authoritarian or even non-transitional states. In sum, this article argues that the kind of transition should determine the kind of transitional justice interventions employed.