Why did the Haitian truth commission fail? This article evaluates the Haitian Commission nationale de vérité et de justice (CNVJ). It concludes that the Commission faced many complications (including a lack of political will and funding) and numerous institutional constraints (including lack of capacity, increasing security concerns, and shortages of time and funding). The Commission was therefore unable to contribute appropriately to the acknowledgement of Haiti’s conflicted past, undermining donor attempts to advance reconciliation in the country.
In the aftermath of conflict, it is imperative that societies acknowledge the truth about events that have taken place. Unless international crimes are both privately and publicly acknowledged by individuals within a society, that society cannot move forward with social rebuilding. Recognising the need for a public institution to facilitate this process in the aftermath of the military coup and the ensuing violence in Haiti from 1991 to 1994, the CNVJ was established to uncover the details about what had taken place. The Commission was to investigate the gravest violations of human rights during the specified dates and to aid in the reconciliation of all Haitians.
The Commission, however, faced many complications in fulfilling its mandate. An evaluation of the activities of the CNVJ revealed the following difficulties:
- Lack of popular support: While the CNVJ enjoyed extensive support from among the many Haitian diaspora communities, it failed to win the popular support of Haitians in the country; it ignored local NGOs and failed to engage the media and politicians regarding its purpose.
- Lack of political will: While the Aristide government ostensibly supported the CNVJ, it did not take ownership of the process and refused to publicise the Commission’s processes or findings.
- Lack of capacity: The Commission seemed to have no coordinated strategy, with chaotic management structures, and a lack of popular legitimacy.
- Increasing security concerns: The existing police and judicial bodies were inadequate to assist with the work of the Commission, casting a pall of paranoia over the whole proceeding.
- Shortages of time and funding: Delays in assembling the Commission and in securing necessary funding undermined the CNVJ from the start.
Although a truth commission, in and of itself, cannot hope to bring about social restoration, it ought to be able to foster some level of acknowledgement that could in turn support initiatives toward democracy and justice. Yet it seems that the absence of supportive political will combined with the Commission’s institutional shortcomings have resulted in a failure to properly acknowledge the events of the past. Lessons learned include the following:
- Donors and the Haitian government should have made greater efforts to publicise the Commission’s work – most Haitians, and even some Commissioners, never saw a copy of the final report.
- The Commission collected significant amounts of data on the conflict, but made almost no lasting impact through convictions or through visible monuments. Future mechanisms must prioritise such efforts.
- While the CNVJ did not fulfil its mandate, it did produce a sophisticated database used to analyse the violence which could be replicated in other transitional justice processes.