Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Coming to Terms with the Past Power, Memory and Legitimacy in Truth Commissions
by Bakiner, Onur, Ph.D., Yale University, 2011, 336; 3467900
Abstract (Summary)

Truth commissions stand out as the most widespread institutional mechanism in contemporary societies to confront the legacy of past human rights violations. This dissertation examines the social and political implications of a society's coming to terms with its past through a truth commission. In what ways do truth commissions facilitate the acknowledgment of human rights violations and influence policy reform? What factors explain cross-national variation in terms of commissions' impact on politics and society? To what extent have truth commissions maintained, challenged or transformed political discourse on memory, truth, justice, reconciliation, recognition, nationalism and political legitimacy? In what ways do truth commissions take part in the struggles for social memory in deeply divided societies?

Portraying truth commissions as a policy tool that legitimizes the incoming regime, a common tendency among transitional justice scholars, is too simplistic. Many truth commissions have defended their autonomy from political intervention, and published findings, historical narratives and recommendations that surprised and delegitimized individual and organizational political actors, including the creators of the commission. This observation motivates the dissertation's examination of the conditions under which truth commissions assume greater autonomy from political intervention and exercise agency in terms of their goals, methods and interpretation of past violence.

This dissertation makes use of methods and insights from comparative politics, social memory studies, and normative political theory. I conduct comparative case studies of the truth commissions in Chile and Peru, using a within-case process-tracing approach, to generate a theory of truth commission impact. Between September 2008 and July 2009 I interviewed a total of 102 individuals who took part in truth commission processes in Chile and Peru. I complemented the interviews with archival research on press reports, human rights documentation and memoirs of key social and political actors. I assess the main argument with a cross-national comparison of 16 truth commissions using data on secondary sources.

The main argument is that the political decision-making process establishing a truth commission shapes whether or not, and the extent to which, the findings and recommendations of the commission produce political and social change. The more control key political decision-makers exercise over the design and mandate of the commission by excluding political rivals and civil society groups, the more likely that the truth commission will produce a final report in line with those decision-makers' expectations, and consequently, the more likely that they will endorse the commission's final report and adhere to its recommendations. In contrast, a participatory commission creation process enables civil society actors, the commissioners and staff to exercise greater discretion with respect to the commission's objectives, procedures, and the methodology. The findings, historical narrative and recommendations of such a highly autonomous truth commission are likely to surprise and upset decision-makers, including the same politicians who established the commission. Thus, the findings and policy suggestions are less likely to be endorsed and implemented by key political actors, limiting the commission's impact on policy outcomes relative to its agenda of reforms. Nonetheless, such a commission contributes to society's coming to terms with its past in unanticipated ways: it triggers civil society mobilization around the human rights issue, activates the debate on historical memory, and sets normative standards with which civil society groups monitor the human rights policy.

I complement the empirical investigation with a theoretical examination of the relationship between history, ethics and politics in truth commissions. Truth commissions combine human rights investigation with a historical narrative of the underlying causes and patterns of violence and violations in the service of an ethical and practical national reconstruction project. The narrativization of the past through truth commissions forces us to rethink the practical and normative implications, as well as the limitations, of the struggle for social memory, the role of factual truth in politics, and the power of official historiography to shape citizens' relation to the past in national and post-national political imagination. Truth commissions mobilize an unprecedented degree of societal participation in the rewriting of official history, as evidenced in the valorization of victims' testimonies.

Ultimately, truth commissions' achievements and shortcomings arise from a complex set of reasons. Autonomy, political efficacy and transformative potential are therefore essential concepts to analyze what truth commissions expect to accomplish in contemporary societies. Yet, the very conditions under which truth commissions are set up, supported and endorsed reveal their dependence on, and vulnerability before, influential political decision-makers and institutions, limiting truth commissions' ability to transform politics and society.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Wood, Elisabeth J.
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 72/10, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Latin American Studies, Political science
Keywords: Chile, Comparative politics, Democratization, Human rights, Peru, Social memory, Transitional justice, Truth Commissions
Publication Number: 3467900
ISBN: 978-1-124-80575-7
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