Truth Commission in the 21st Century: Is this the Spring needed in the Arab Spring?

When protestors marched to Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, the one goal they had set in mind was to end the years of police brutality and political corruption that had permeated throughout the government. By engaging in a campaign of non-violent resistance, the protestors sought to garner enough support from the international community to overthrow the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and establish a system that would guarantee the protection of essential human rights. After witnessing the success in Egypt, protestors throughout the Arab world followed suit in an attempt to accomplish the same result. While some have not been as successful as others, they continue to share a common goal of establishing a government that will protect their interests and respect fundamental rights. However, what they did not conceive was that the transition to democracy was going to require more effort than just engaging in extended sit-ins.

Will it help to have a country like the United States oversee the transition or is there a different course the new governments should pursue in establishing a lasting democracy? In addressing this question, the issue of sovereignty should be an important factor in determining whether international bodies should take part in the transitional process.  In Iraq, for example, the United States’ involvement in the dismantling of Sadaam Hussein’s regime raised serious issues of sovereignty. Although the conflict derived from a different context than the one in the Arab Spring, the underlying goal, at least as what was expressed to the international community, was to end the totalitarian regime under Sadaam Hussein and build a stable democracy. While Sadaam Hussein was overthrown, Iraq has yet to see a semblance of democracy after years of armed conflict. Instead, what remains is a country in rubble yearning for stability and legitimacy in the international community. Yet, continued surveillance of the Iraqi people through unarmed drones has hampered Iraq’s ability to accomplish these goals as it continues to assert its sovereignty. As a result, external involvement has proven to be an impractical recourse in the transitional process.

If not through external intervention, how should these countries resolve the legacy of human rights abuses within the confines of their own borders? Although some have sought to promulgate the traditional approach of punishment, others have found innovative means to address the atrocities of their not-so-distant past. As a result of the perception that trials may lead to greater instability, transitional governments have limited or even abstained from criminal proceedings and instead created a form of amnesty.

In his account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Chile shortly after the Pinochet regime, Jose Zalaquett stressed the importance of having a system set in place that will serve as a spearhead to the transitional process. He admitted that while this approach did not completely heal the wounds of the past, it initiated a discourse of acknowledgement and reparations from the armed forces. In his view, the aim was to build a fair and just system on the rubbles of the past. While the victims did not feel comfortable living with their perpetrators, they felt safe in knowing that the established system would not permit this sort of thing to happen again.

If truth commissions were to be established in countries undergoing a significant transition in the Arab world, would they enjoy the same success as in Chile? Because the Pinochet regime had created a system that penetrated every aspect of society, amnesty was seen as an essential tool for advancing political transition in Chile and a medium for societal reconciliation. Similarly, corruption and injustice in countries like Egypt have been so ingrained in the fabric of society that traditional forms of justice may not work efficiently. This is due in part to the fact that many of the participants of the prior regime have remained in power or at least have continued to have an influence in the government years after the corrupt leader has been dismantled. Moreover, members of the oppressed faction have sought to assure that the families and friends of the corrupt regime suffer for the years of intolerance. Consequently, the victims of the prior regime become the oppressors and the cycle of injustice runs its course anew. Thus, the avenue that a country pursues should reflect the specific needs of each nation.

What will the future hold for these countries in their transition to democracy? Will truth commissions serve the purpose of establishing a stable system like it did in Chile or will another form of transitional justice be more appropriate in countries that have never experienced any form of democracy?

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