Long Night's Journey Into Day: Truth Commissions and Human Rights in South Africa
by Andrea Holley, Manager of Outreach and Public Education, Human Rights Watch
Long Night's Journey Into Day looks at four cases that came before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Each of the four cases explores a different dynamic under the former apartheid regime in South Africa and involves the meeting of victims and perpetrators in an effort to uncover the truth.
Apartheid is specifically addressed in international human rights law by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Despite years of sometimes violent struggle and the well-known imprisonment of political figures such as Nelson Mandela, the apartheid regime was brought down by peaceful means. It is in a similar spirit that the TRC operates without justice, there can be no peace.
Truth commissions are in operation in other countries as well. Examples can be found in East Timor, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Brazil (for other examples see United States Institute of Peace web site). Because they provide a way of acknowledging what happened in a particular country, truth commissions are a useful and perhaps even necessary step towards moving beyond a painful set of circumstances. However, when amnesty is granted to former state officials or others involved in human rights abuses, it is considered controversial by many.
In the United States, we have seen a variety of hearings over the years designed to investigate what happened during a particular series of events or under a particular president. In some ways these proceedings are not unlike a truth commission. Many people in the U.S. believe that a truth commission, organized subsequent to the major victories of the civil rights movement, could have made a major difference in race relations in American society.