Truth and Consequences

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TRUTH

Since September 11, most talk about international justice has focused on what to do with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists, if and when they are caught. The debate over military tribunals, international trials, and similar concerns arising from the Afghanistan campaign, however, has obscured what is perhaps the greatest recent innovation in post-transition justice: the rise of truth commissions. Few have yet started clamoring for such a panel to catalog the Taliban's various offenses; Afghanistan is still far too chaotic and violent, its government far too tentative. But this lack of a truth commission in Afghanistan bucks the trend. Elsewhere, such commissions seem to be springing up with amazing regularity.

On taking office in October 2000, for example, one of the first things Vojislav Kostunica, Yugoslavia's first freely elected president, did was announce the creation of a truth commission to investigate the crimes committed during the wars of Yugoslav succession. Nine months later and half a world away, Alejandro Toledo made a similar pledge the day he was elected to replace the autocratic Alberto Fujimori as Peru's head of state. Unthinkable just a short time ago, such gestures now accompany practically every transition from civil war or authoritarian rule. Announcing the creation of a truth commission has become a popular way for newly minted leaders to show their democratic bona fides and curry favor with the international community. In the months between Kostunica's and Toledo's announcements, for example, ten other commissions were started, in countries ranging from Bosnia to East Timor and Panama to Sierra Leone.

The truth business, in short, is booming. A new academic discipline has sprung up to study the commissions, with courses on the topic now offered at New York University, Harvard, Michigan, and Columbia law schools. Numerous books and articles on the subject appear each year. And last March, the world's first truth commission consulting firm -- the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) -- set up shop in a Wall Street office suite.

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