Human Rights Review

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 349–368 | Cite as

Redesigning the Definition a Truth Commission, but Also Designing a Forward-Looking Non-Prescriptive Definition to Make Them Potentially More Successful

  • Jeremy Sarkin


This article argues that two new definitions are needed for what constitutes a truth commission. The first new definition that is needed is a different backward-looking definition that is used reflectively to contrast, compare and research past and present truth commissions. It is argued that the variety of definitions that exist about what constitutes a Truth Commission (TC) have a number of problems, and that a better definition is needed to categorise past mechanisms, make comparisons and improve comparative research. The second goal of the article is to investigate why it is necessary to create a non-prescriptive explanatory forward-looking definition focusing on the compositional elements of a TC. This is because definitions are also useful to assist those who wish to establish TC on what the compositional elements need to be, to ensure that these institutions are less likely to fail in their endeavours. This is important, as TCs have been extensively criticised for not achieving the goals that they are meant to. To determine why a new backward-looking definition is needed, which is broader and more inclusive than existing definitions, some of the current TC definitions are deconstructed. The various elements are re-examined and reconstituted to ensure a more holistic and relevant definition for what a TC is. As far as a forward-looking definition is concerned, the article examines what the compositional elements ought to be to make them more likely to be contextually applicable, to have more of a positive effect and have more of a constructive role in the places where they are created. Issues focused on that need greater delineation include the idea that TCs—besides focusing on the past—also, in some cases, investigate on-going human rights abuse. It is contended that TCs must be created with the support of the people in the country and be reflective of their needs. It is maintained that a TC should be a temporary body and that independence, legitimacy and sufficient resources are crucial factors in determining whether a TC will be successful. Also, considered is why having an independent process to choose commissioners, who are diverse and representative of that society is critical to the outcome of the process.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of South Africa (UNISA) and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law and member of CEDIS at NOVA University, Lisbon Law SchoolLisbonPortugal

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