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The Rights Track Sound evidence on human rights

Why America needs a truth commission

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established The Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, a formal body that collected evidence and made recommendations on many of the challenges facing women in the modern American economy, polity, and society. No such body has ever been established for the status of African Americans. It is now time to do so, but its remit should be much wider argues Rights Track presenter and Professor of Human Rights, Todd Landman.

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43rd Annual African-American Day Parade

Last week saw the high profile killings of two young black men: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge Louisiana and Philando Castille in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both killings were captured on video and widely shared on social media, raising significant questions about the use of force by the police and the role that race has to play in such encounters.

Shortly after these two incidents, the city of Dallas witnessed an attack by lone shooter Micah Xavier Johnson, who killed five police officers and wounded six others, while causing mass panic during what has been reported to be an otherwise peaceful protest led by the Black Lives Matter social movement. The events in Dallas once again underlined the challenges surrounding race, rights, and the ready availability of high-powered weaponry, with all sides on these issues framing the events in ways that advance different political agendas.

Since the 1961 Presidential Commission, the world has seen the emergence and proliferation of so-called ‘truth commissions’ that have mandates to provide thorough accounts of so-called ‘past wrongs’ that have taken place during prolonged periods of conflict (e.g. El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, Sierra Leone), foreign occupation (e.g. East Timor), and authoritarian rule (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and South Africa).

Based on the Military Tribunal in Nuremburg after World War II, truth commissions typically collect different kinds of evidence using different kinds of methods and then issue reports on their findings. The evidence includes converting and analysing large numbers of statements made to the commission, in-depth case studies of the lived experiences of different communities, public hearings from victims and perpetrators, and other forms of evidence, including survey data, forensic information, archival and documentary evidence among many others.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is probably the most well known. It showed that more than 21,000 reported killings took place during the period of Apartheid. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission using more advanced statistical techniques estimated that between 61,007 and 77,552 people were killed between 1980 and 2000. These and other statistical findings raise awareness about the true nature and extent of violence, the kinds of people who become victims, and findings on the perpetrators of the killings. In the United States, the total number of deaths from gun violence over the last three decades far exceeds the totals reported in truth commissions and other civil wars around the world in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

While there is much debate about the structure, design, outcomes, and impact of truth commissions, they do provide a moment in history for the public acknowledgment of past wrongs and a national reckoning, which seeks to be inclusive of all stakeholders, victims, survivors, and their families and friends.

Many lessons have been learned and many stories of suffering have been shared and acknowledged. Different models for truth commissions have been adopted, while debates in countries such as Spain and the UK (i.e. Northern Ireland) continue as to whether such a body would be appropriate. Indeed, it was only in the past few years that Brazil decided to establish its own truth commission to address the period of military rule between 1964 and 1985.

In the United States there is also a precedent. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to understand and explain violence that took place in November 1979 as a result of conflict between The Communist Workers Party and the Ku Klux Klan. The commission was independent and comprised democratically elected members who sought truth and healing for a city that had been left divided and weakened.

An American Truth Commission

What would an American Truth Commission look like? Like Greensboro, it would need to be independent and have either appointed or democratically elected commissioners, ranging from lawyers, academics, prominent religious leaders, leading media representatives, and members of the general public. It could be established by executive decree (as was done by John F Kennedy with the Commission on the Status of Women) and hosted by the US Institute for Peace (USIP), which has carried out analysis and support for truth commissions around the world.

The USIP was established by Congress and is located on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington DC. Its work could be assisted by the International Centre for Transitional Justice, a leading non-governmental organisation based in New York City that has also analysed and supported truth commissions around the world.

The American Truth Commission should examine the period from the promulgation of the War on Drugs in 1971 during the Nixon Administration to the present day. Its focus should be on the social, economic, legal, and political status of all groups in America. It should be inclusive of all main political factions and bear witness to all groups affected by the cycle of violence, poverty, and division in American society. It should carry out rigorous and systematic epidemiological analysis of gun violence, focusing on the true nature and extent of the violence. It should hear testimony from the gun lobby, gun control lobby, health professionals, the police and other law enforcement officials, civil liberties groups among many others with a view on violence in America.

Such a commission would take time and would produce a significant number of volumes, like the truth commissions mentioned above and much like the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War published last week in the United Kingdom. It would provide a moment of pause for America to listen to itself. To its own voices. To its own people. To its own pain. It would require maturity and patience, and it would require honesty from all sides.

The alternative to having such a commission is further division and a cycle of violence that will not solve any of the ongoing problems and the continued death of citizens. Many commentators worry that America is now at a significant tipping point, where unresolved differences, a highly contested and fraught electoral campaign, and the continued access to guns provides the foundations for a failed state and a downward spiral into civil war, or at least a chilling echo of the societal unrest that characterised America in 1968.

Only by stepping back, coming together, sharing stories, and once again connecting in ways that recognise our common human dignity can we find the much-needed foundation for peace, reconciliation, and a secure future for our children.

Image credit: j-No

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