How can fledgling democracies respond appropriately to the past evils of internal conflict without jeopardising stability and future development? What roles do official truth commissions and national and international civil society play in supporting or weakening post-conflict consolidation of democracy? The author examines the experiences of transitional justice in South Africa, Argentina, Guatemala, Chile and El Salvador to address these questions.
Evaluating truth commissions and indicating where such bodies need to be supplemented by other tools can be done using a normative framework of eight criteria: truth, public platforms for victims, accountability and punishment, rule of law, compensation, institutional reform, reconciliation, and public deliberation. Truth commissions contribute significantly to post-conflict reconstruction but need to be supplemented by other measures and institutions. Effective national civil society is indispensable to transitional justice, and international civil society plays an important supporting role. However, civil society organisations (CSOs) can jeopardise states emerging from civil conflict if they:
- Are weak and disunited domestic bodies, with limited impact on transitional justice.
- Usurp the state by assuming roles that other actors should play.
- Become inward-looking self-help organisations, and fail to assess, debate with or influence other bodies that affect transitional justice.
- Lose their independence and fail to monitor the government, or in the case of International CSOs insulate the government from domestic criticism.
- Give factions in government pretexts to reject outside recommendations, in the case of International CSOs.
- Are ignorant of local realities and time interventions wrongly.
International actors can promote transitional justice by providing resources, moral support, international legitimacy, and experience to governments and domestic CSOs. But too much (or the wrong kind of) international response does more harm than good. To mitigate risks, international organisations need to:
- Interact with both government and domestic CSOs.
- Accurately evaluate and understand the particular society in transition in order to design and time interventions well.
- Recognise that transitional justice has multiple goals, and that achieving these is an ongoing process.
- Be prepared to take on an adversarial role where domestic bodies have succumbed to unjust and undemocratic forces.