Last Reviewed 30 May 2012
Strategic Choices in the Design of Truth Commissions

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 Design Factors
 -Political Context


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Design Factors >

Composition of Commission
The individual commissioners that are appointed to a commission are highly visible and often seen as representing the seriousness of the effort to face the past of gross human right abuses. Their credibility is a crucial factor for the proceedings and effectiveness of a truth commission. They can also come to embody the hope for a better future and the trust in a fair assessment of the past. (The composition of the working staff of a commission, which is relevant for much the same reasons, is addressed in a different section ® see "Resources")

The following are components of the composition of a truth commission:

  1. Number of commissioners
  2. Nationality of commissioners
  3. Professional background of commissioners
  4. Reputation of commissioners
  5. Diversity and representativeness of commissioners
Number of commissioners

A large number of commissioners can allow for the representation of diverse political interest groups (the more groups that have to be accommodated, the bigger the commission is likely to be). It can also allow for matching the task with sufficient people to complete it (the more comprehensive and encompassing the commission's mandate, the bigger the commission has to be in order to be able to manage the workload). One of the most obvious drawbacks of a big commission is the time and energy that has to be dedicated to coordination and communication. A big commission may also have greater difficulties reaching unanimous conclusions and recommendations at the end of its work.

Nationality of commissioners

The nationality mix of a given commission reflects the degree of divisiveness and distrust that prevails in a society. Foreigners are often chosen where domestic personalities cannot be trusted to gain respect from all sides to a conflict or would be put in unbearable personal danger by serving on a truth and reconciliation commission. One of the gravest drawbacks in choosing a commission of foreigners is that they will likely lack familiarity with both the past and the present (political) situation.

The choices in composing a commission are:

  • exclusively national

  • exclusively international/ foreign, or

  • mixed

Professional background of commissioners

The professional background of commissioners can reflect the primary focus of a commission's work: a commission made up mostly of lawyers will likely convey an image of justice; a commission made up mostly of human rights figures will likely convey the will to face the truth through the voice of the former opposition; a commission made up mostly of high ranking political figures from all sides of the spectrum will likely convey the will to move on; a commission made up of religious leaders and/ or psychologists will likely convey the attempt to reach healing and forgiveness.

The choices in selecting commissioners from certain professional backgrounds are:

  • to compose a commission of low professional diversity

  • to compose a commission of medium professional diversity

  • to compose a commission of high professional diversity

  • An additional choice in commissions with low professional diversity is which one profession or affiliation to appoint.

Reputation of commissioners

The reputation of commissioners depends on their public stature and visibility, as well as their personal integrity and dedication to the protection of human rights. Arguably, the higher the reputation and visibility of a commission's members, the more serious the effort of investigating past human rights abuses will appear in the public's eye.

In composing a commission, one can choose to select:

  • highly respected commissioners (nationally and/ or internationally)

  • respected commissioners (nationally and/ or internationally)

  • accepted commissioners (nationally and/ or internationally)

  • unaccepted commissioners (nationally and/ or internationally)

  • unknown commissioners (nationally and/or internationally)

Diversity and representativeness of commissioners

The diversity of a commission is determined by the components covered above: occupation, political affiliation, and ethnicity/ nationality. A further component is the degree to which the commissioners represent the full political spectrum, i.e. in many cases former victims as well as perpetrators. This dimension may be particularly important for the commission to be perceived as fair and qualified. The inclusion of victims lends credibility to the fact that their claims will be addressed. The inclusion of former perpetrators may improve chances of implementation. The higher the overall diversity of a commission, the more credible its findings are likely to be found. One significant trade-off of high diversity (i.e. diversity on all or nearly all counts) may be an increased difficulty to reach unanimous conclusions and judgements.

Again, commissioners can be chosen to make up a commission of

  • Low diversity - representing only one segment of the political spectrum, not representing victims or perpetrators

  • Medium diversity - representing some segments of the political spectrum, maybe representing victims or perpetrators, or

  • High diversity - representing the whole political spectrum, representing victims and perpetrators

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