Friday, April 15, 2011

Truth Commissions as Instruments of Justice: Challenges for Tunisia

Tawfik Bouderbla, President of the Tunisian Commission for investigating the truth on the violations during the last events opened the session by outlining the mandate and the process of appointment of the members of the commission he heads.

Tawfik Bouderbla, President of the Tunisian
Commission for investigating the truth on
the violations during the last events
He detailed that by the 4 March the Commission received more than 700 complaints dealing with violations of human rights - 106 deaths, 641 injuries and the rest referring to damage of property. On the basis of this information, the prosecutors in Kasrin heard hundreds of witnesses to date and that some arrest warrants have already been issued. 

‘We will not issue sentences, but investigate and do the work of investigating judges,’ Bouderbla explained. The Commission will prepare a comprehensive report to document events before and during the revolution; and who the victims and perpetrators were. Buderbla pleaded for the judicial system to be allowed to do its work, to ensure an end to impunity in Tunisia.

Priscilla Hayner, Senior Advisor in the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue presented the experience of Argentina, where one of the first action of the civilian government following the repressive rule of the military junta was to establish a truth commission.

The findings fed directly to the reparations for the victims resulting in a $3 billion reparations program. Twenty years after the commission completed its work, amnesty laws were repealed and hundreds of people were charged with crimes the report documented.

Hayner explained that truth commissions are generally established to look into the broader context in which violations took place, to tell the broader story of a country’s history and are usually complementary to the prosecutions of perpetrators.

In the end, she stressed that the success of truth commissions depends on the right people leading the commission, it full independence from olitical influence and adequate resources for its functioning.

Howard Varney, Senior Consultant at ICTJ addressed the relationship between truth commissions and criminal justice.

Varney examined (read his full speech here)the integrated approach where both mechanisms are implemented simultaneously, often in a complementary, symbiotic relationship.

Timing is one of the first questions to consider, Varney asserted. Shortly after the cessation of conflict is when such initiatives are likely to garner the most political and financial support.

At the end of his presentation, Varney emphasized that truth commissions need to deal with corruption and economic crime when it is determined they are at the heart of the violence and form the root causes of conflict.

Varney concluded that it would be highly inappropriate for a truth commission to offer leniency or amnesty for crimes of greed, even if it involves the restitution of stolen funds.

Istvan Rev, Professor of History and Political Science, Central European University presented a historian’s perspective on the examination of past event, from an objective, non-judgmental perspective, as sometimes we have to live with historic and legal truths existing simultaneously.

Rev pointed to the crucial role of documenting the past and archives in this context. The integrity of documents must be preserved for the sake of a historic record of events, Rev asserted.

Rev concluded by highlighting the distinction of narratives formed by historians and those constructed by lawyers, artists, journalists and others, as historians must establish facts that can be checked and re-checked outside the logic of events. This gives historians a decisive role in creating credible individual and collective records of the past.

The discussion that followed largely focused on the issues surrounding the work of the Tunisian Commission headed by Bouderbla, particularly the forms of violations it is to investigate, criteria for appointments of members, methods of gathering evidence and ensuring resources for its work.

In response to numerous questions, Bouderbla sought to ensure the audience of the legitimacy of the appointment process and pleaded for support and cooperation with the commission he runs. At the end of the session, a heated exchange ensued between Bouderbla and a member of the press over the access to information about the work of the commission. 

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