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 >

Proceedings, put very simply, are the things that a commission will do while in operation. They are, to a large degree, determined by the mandate and the resources allocated.

The components of a commission's proceedings are as follows:

Assessment of community/ victim needs

Before a commission starts its hearings and investigations, it has the choice of taking input from the communities and victims that it is going to work with. If healing of the social fabric and redress of human suffering are among the purposes of a truth commission, it seems highly advisable to start out with an understanding of what the community needs and expects. An early assessment of community and survivor needs can also be crucial in managing the expectations that a society may hold with respect to a truth commission. Excessive expectations about what it will be able to accomplish can severely hamper the impact of a truth commission, as many can feel disappointed in its findings. The assessment of community and victim needs is usually done in cooperation with human rights and/ or advocacy organizations. It can be done before the commission starts working (through input of victims into the mandating process), or during the commission’s operations (through involvement in preparation of testimonies).


The extent to which a commission can engage in preparation for its task depends, in part, on the time that is available between the commission's establishment and the actual start of its operations. The less familiar the commissioners and staff are with the situation in the country (that is especially true for foreign commissioners), the more time a commission will likely need to prepare for its task. Also, the more comprehensive the task and the more flexibility the commission has in interpreting its task, the more time it will likely want to set up its operations. More often, though, commissions smooth out operations as they go along.

Designers of truth commissions may choose to explicitly allot time for preparation. (We have identified the number of months between establishment of commission and start of operations for the five cases below.) Subsequently, the commissioners can choose how much preparation they will give to their task.

Cooperation with civil society/ NGOs

The degree to which a truth commission cooperates with the civil society of a country - with victim's organizations, human rights organizations and others - influences its access to information, its effectiveness in addressing the needs of victims, as well as its standing in the eyes of the public. Integration of previous initiatives to document the truth of human rights abuses can give a commission a head start, while it still has to re-investigate the facts of the cases put forward. Cooperation with NGOs and local grassroots organizations can contribute to the victims' feeling of recognition and acknowledgement through the commission and, implicitly, the state. Such cooperation can also improve the quality of involvement with the victims' communities.

The commission, then, has the choice

  • Not to cooperate with civil society actors/ NGOs

  • To cooperate with civil society actors/ NGOs initially or sporadically, or

  • To cooperate with civil society actors/ NGOs continuously and systematically

Location/ Accessibility of commission

The physical location of a truth commission, and the number of its offices or trips throughout the country are crucial for the commission's accessibility for victims (and perpetrators). Full accessibility translates into credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness for the commission's work.

Choices regarding the location and accessibility of a commission are:

  • To centralize or decentralize offices; and

  • To make offices, commissioners and staff easily accessible or not


Commissions vary in the concrete activities they engage in. All commissions have an investigative component: they collect testimony and evidence to establish an accurate picture of past human rights abuses. All commissions are charged with preparing reports about their findings. Some commissions conduct public hearings instead of interviews/ hearings behind closed doors. Some commissions also engage in public rituals to address the suffering of victims and survivors. Few commissions have offered assistance with exhumations, concrete medical and psychological services, or reparations. Even fewer have had the power to decide whether amnesty should be granted in individual cases. The variety and range of activities engaged by a commission depend on the flexibility and/ or comprehensiveness of the mandate, its resources, and the political climate in a country. While it is important that a commission engages in the activities that are seen as crucial for its purpose, be it truth telling or national reconciliation, it appears to be even more important that a commission does not create false expectations about the kinds of activities it can engage in.

Its mandate and resources allowing, a commission can choose from the following list of possible actvities:

  • fundraising

  • investigation (documenting of evidence),

  • hearings + interviews (gathering of testimony), either public or 'behind closed doors',

  • assistance with exhumations/ re-burials,

  • medical services,

  • psychological services,

  • public rituals,

  • reparations allocation,

  • amnesty procedures,

  • preparation of report

Visibility of Hearings

Commissions can hold interviews and hearings with victims, their families and, under certain circumstances, perpetrators either publicly or privately/ secretly. While public hearings involve the broader community and nation more than private/ secret ones and therefore provide immediate education about past human rights abuses, their feasibility must be thoroughly deliberated. The less stable the political environment, the higher the power of former perpetrators, and the more pervasive fear and distrust in a society, the less feasible public hearings are. They can only be held in the context of irreversible transition and in the presence of safety and protection for victims and witnesses.

The choices regarding the visibility and publicity of hearings are therefore:

  • To hold public hearings

  • To hold private hearings behind closed doors

  • To hold both public and private hearings

Degree of Formality of Hearings

In taking testimony from victims and perpetrators, a commission has a choice of what kind of an environment it wants to create. On the one hand, it can create an empathic, therapeutic environment in which witnesses are invited to tell their stories and unburden themselves of the horrors they have seen, experienced or perpetrated (low formality). On the other hand it can focus on verifying testimony through a court like cross-examination of witnesses (high formality). In the face of grave human rights violations, and due to a lack of judicial power, truth commissions usually tend not to cross-examine victims and survivors. Instead, they collect testimony in a procedure that attempts to be systematic in its questions, yet empathic with the pain, and respectful towards the stories that it uncovers. Verification and thorough investigation need to supplement the hearing or interview.

A commission can choose to hold hearings in an atmosphere of

  • Low formality, e.g. stressing therapeutic acknowledgement

  • Medium formality, e.g. stressing investigative, non-confrontational collection of testimony, or

  • High formality, e.g. stressing court like cross-examination

Languages used

The languages in which testimony can be given are important in order to maximize the number of witnesses that are going to come forward, as well to demonstrate recognition and validation for the cultural identity of victims. This is especially important in ethically or culturally divided societies, and where human rights abuse has been waged against a particular ethnic group. Ideally, testimony can be given (with the aide of translators) in the language that the victim prefers and feels most comfortable in.

The choices with respect to languages used in the proceedings of a commission are as follows:

  • Use of official language

  • Use of languages of victims + use of translator

  • Use of official language and languages of victims (+ use of translator)

Identity and Acceptance of statement takers

The willingness and number in which victims come forward to provide testimony will in part depend on the identity of those who will take their statements. The less accepted and/ or trusted statement takers are - due to their identity, political affiliation or lack of familiarity with the conflict, professionalism or knowledge - the less likely witnesses are to report fully and at ease.

In choosing statement takers, a commission has therefore to be mindful whether they are:

  • fellow community members, national or international statement takers

  • accepted or unaccepted by victims and/ or perpetrators

  • trusted or distrusted by victims and/ or perpetrators

(Perceived) Risk of Participation in Hearings

The success of a commission in uncovering the truth about past human rights abuses depends in part on the cooperation of victims, survivors, witnesses and perpetrators. The ease and willingness with which all of these groups will come forward and testify depends on how safe they feel. The higher the risk that they associate with testifying - for their own life, or that of family members and others, and for their future in a society - the less likely they will testify or testify truthfully. This holds true to a certain extent for perpetrators of human rights crimes, even though their participation will also depend on their perception of the investigative powers of the commission. If sweeping amnesty laws have been passed in the wake of establishing a truth commission, or if a tradition of impunity of state actors is expected to continue, perpetrators may feel less pressure to cooperate.

The risk that victims or perpetrators associate with testifying can be:

  • Low

  • Medium, or

  • High

Follow-up activities with communities and/ or victims after Hearings

A commission can engage in or encourage some follow-up activities with communities and victims after hearings have been held. The follow up activities can range from simple acts of acknowledgement (like letters of thanks) to the provision of medical and/ or psychological services.

In choosing follow-up services, a commission can be creative, but needs to be mindful of its mandate and resources. It can broaden its follow-up activities by cooperating with local NGOs.

Number of cases presented to commission

The number of cases presented to a given commission – either through individual testimony or through documentation provided by local, national and international human rights organizations – is often but the tip of the iceberg. The number of cases provides only an approximation of the extent of past human rights abuses.

Thus, the numbers presented below may not be exact. They should be read as general indications. In addition, the category “case” has been interpreted differently for each commission: while in some commissions, cases are individual incidents, in others they are individual testimonies, which may relate to the same incident.

Number of victims/ perpetrators heard

Commissions receive evidence from many different sources. One of the most important is the individual testimony given by victims and survivors of past human rights violations. Commissions usually receive thousands of such accounts. They also receive, albeit in lesser numbers, testimony from (suspected) perpetrators of human rights abuses.

The numbers presented below are only a general indication. For some commissions, numbers may not be exact. For many commissions, only rough estimates for this component are reported.

Media coverage

Significant media coverage is important for many aspects of a commissions work - owning up to the past human rights abuses, educating the public, and ensuring that such human rights violations will happen 'never again'. Media coverage can focus on the proceedings of a commission, or on the presentation and publication of the commission's final report. News media can be print, radio stations and TV stations; they can be local, national or international. A commission and its commissioners have a choice to heighten the commission's presence in the media by adopting a press friendly profile. Press conferences of well known members of the commission, for example, are likely to draw the attention of the media.

To attract media coverage for a commission, choices need to be made with respect to

  • Permission of low, medium or high media coverage for the commission's work;

  • Accessibility for local, national and/ or international news media;

  • Permission of coverage of proceedings and/ or release of report;

  • Adoption of a media profile of the commission (press releases, press conferences, interviews);

  • Aiming for long-term or short-term coverage

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