What Is The Most Appropriate Role For International Actors In Conflict Transformation?

Using a specific case to illustrate your argument, and with reference to debates about international norms, international law, morality and/or responsibility, make a case for humanitarian, military or diplomatic intervention.

The aim of this title is to highlight the most appropriate role for international actors to play in conflict transformation. With such a wide range of examples and contexts it is therefore important to be highly specific. For specificity within this paper, I will focus on the use of truth commissions, an element of transformative justice, within conflict transformation. In order to best analyse and critique this form of transformative justice this paper will examine truth commissions within the context of the theoretical frameworks that surround them, as opposed to focusing purely on a particular case study. By using the norms, influencing factors and failures that impact truth commissions can be used as a lens in which to outline the most appropriate role for international actors within conflict transformation. Throughout this essay I will criticise primarily the use of guiding principles and contextual utility of truth commissions within ‘post-conflict’ areas by challenging the norms that encompass the conception of truth commissions, to better understand the most appropriate role for international actors within a ‘post-conflict’ or transitional society. 

Based on my research I am of the opinion that international actors more often than not can be seen to prolong the transition from conflict to peace through agendas and a lack of critical understanding of the location that they are intervening in. In general, domestic impact when it comes to truth commissions and other transitional justice methods is highly potent, more so than international influence. It is due to this that throughout this paper I will not refer to the role of the international community but the role of the method itself. 

Within the process of conflict transformation there have been and continue to be many methods trialled in order to aid the processes of both conflict termination and the transition to peace. The transition from violence to peace is plagued with pitfalls and often the jump from conflict to ‘post-conflict’ happens without recognition of crimes and violations, which have taken place during said conflicts. Furthermore, the implementation of truth commissions in the past has been entirely reliant on case specific circumstances, domestic and international support and the faith placed in the commission by those most directly affected by the conflict. Because of the many different case examples my focus will be on the role that truth commissions have played in both a ‘post-conflict’ framework and their factors that impact their success or failure, the specific case studies I will use will be Peru, Guatemala and South Africa, due to their differing impacts and contexts. In order to answer the overall question effectively, the following questions will guide this papers discussion. What are the problems with norms and guiding principles that surround truth commissions? What are some of the failures of truth commissions, and where do these failures stem from?, if at all, is it best to implement a truth commission? Are truth commissions the most appropriate form of transitional justice?

What is a truth commission?

To begin we must first define what a truth commission is. The most widely accepted definition of a truth commission comes from Priscilla Hayner, a transitional justice expert. Hayner (1994:558) defines truth commissions as “bodies set up to investigate a past history of violations of human rights in a particular country, which can include violations by the military or other government forces or armed opposition forces”. Upon elaboration Hayner outlines the proposed parameters of a truth commission, the first is that they are created to focus purely on past (or potential past) violations of human rights and not on-going concerns. Second, Hayner (1994:559) outlines that they should focus on a “pattern of human rights abuses” as opposed to single events, third, “truth commissions are temporary bodies”. 

With the growing interest in human rights, victim acknowledgement and reconciliatory retribution, the research needed to implement further actions in order to meet the rights of victims. The use of truth commissions to investigate the failures of state and sometimes non-state actors within conflicts, are more often than not based on understanding what happened during the conflict and then outlining steps in order to rectify and reconcile these crimes against humanity.

There are discrepancies when it comes to inclusion in the definition of truth commissions. As some within the literature, namely Bronkhurst and Freeman, do not count civil society truth commissions as official representations of truth commissions. However, even Hayner (2000:23) herself defines this as a unique case classified as “quasi-truth commission”. 

What are the problems with norms and guiding principles that surround truth commissions?

One of the primary issues stated throughout the literature surrounding truth commissions are the use of guiding norms. Using set terms of best practice can create a form of prescription rather than analysis and implementation when regarding the creation of a truth commission. Not every conflict will require a truth commission, or some may require an adaptation of the practice. There remains an enormous diversity of cases and in order to most successfully examine the history of each conflict, context should play an integral role (ICTJ, 2016). And therefore, “force practitioners to avoid any kind of automatic application of rules” (ICTJ, 2016:87). 

There has been a growing amount of research not only on the actions taken by truth commissions but their utility in general. These research changes have mainly been in response to the arguments of truth commissions and transitional justice more generally, being built upon “shaky theoretical and empirical foundations” (Brahm, 2009:2; Mendeloff, 2004). Practitioners and those active in the formation of truth commissions often follow more general steps in order to create truth commissions. These often include: “prioritizing reconciliation as the object of a truth commission, often above the goal of truth”, and “requiring broad, extensive and prolonged social consultations that could be simplified to take advantage of the momentum of the transition” (ICTJ, 2016:64). 

In association with justice, and the rights of victims in the context of peaceful transitions, Eglash (1977) has outlined three types of criminal justice: retributive, distributive and restorative. His work highlights that the first two types focus on the criminal act itself. They often deny victims any participation in the justice process, and require almost entirely passive participation by offenders (Eglash, 1977). The third one, however, focuses on restoring the harmful effects of these actions, and actively involves all parties in the criminal process. 

A significant issue surrounding truth commissions approached within the literature has been increased risk of over-consistency. When it comes to the use of guiding principles and regular norms the potential for creating a standard framework for a truth commission increases. Along with the lack of context potentially leading to failures in investigations, it may also impact the way the truth commission is received by the victims and other involved parties. It is clear from the literature that those involved, such as peacemakers, researchers and practitioners should be required to apply the context or conditions of each individual conflict case, specifically to enable the best results from both the truth commission and the application of peaceful transitions. 

From a human rights approach a form of transitional justice, more specifically truth commissions should seek the truth of any action against humanity to the fullest extent. They are to be required to guarantee basic due process, respect values of non-discrimination and will not accept amnesties for any and all acts considered crimes under international law (ICTJ, 2018). 

Despite Hayner’s (1977) general definition of a truth commission influencing the research and implementation of truth commissions there has been clear consensus against the consistency of truth commissions proposed by peace processes. Instead the circumstances and conditions of the particular conflict area should be evaluated and understood (ICTJ, 2018). These factors can include the security of a region, the impact of peace spoilers and the victim community itself. Neglecting these factors may lead to both the failure of a truth commission and could harm the impact of justice policies in general (ICTJ, 2018). 

What are some of the failures of truth commissions, and where do these failures stem from?

A potentially critical problem identified with truth commissions are the unrealistic expectations that are often set for them. Their success can often rely on the opposite; a lack of support, in order to over achieve in its goals, a prime example for this would be Guatemala. Raising expectations of the victims involved in a conflict about the goals and potential results of a truth commission creates long-term issues. While immediate demands for results and action are solved by the truth commissions inception, the failure of a commission to succeed in its goals or to adhere to the victims hopes can lead to frustration and mistrust in the truth commission and perhaps truth commissions in general. The requirement for truth commissions and their supporting groups to manage realistic expectations among civil society groups and their ‘audience’, the public, this must be achieved by not “overselling” a truth commission, while striving to keep them committed to the process by explaining its potential contributions to peace (Brahm, 2009:54; Freeman, 2006). 

Brahm (2006) argues the utility of truth commissions when it comes to the future of human rights policies and practices, however, there are a wider range of studies that have been found to conclude inconsistencies within this argument, due to the many other methods of potential human rights adaptations. Furthermore, there has been a prominent case, despite being confined to Latin America, which defines the employment of “both truth commissions and trials” as more beneficial for the protection of human rights as opposed to the countries where other transitional justice methods have been applied (Sikkink and Walling, 2007). This study of truth commissions conducted in Latin America is backed up by truth commissions “potential democracy-promoting properties” (Kenney and Spears, 2005:78). Globally, however, there seems to be no relationship statistically (Payne et al. 2011; Brahm, 2006).

More generally truth commissions are not stand-alone infrastructures, but part of a larger picture of transitional justice. Only required to investigate and report truth commissions cannot be the answer to a post-conflict state’s deeply ingrained problems but part of many cogs needed to run the machine that is peaceful transitions. Other measures, such as limited institutional reforms, may be carried out concurrently, thereby providing citizens with more immediate gains during a truth- seeking process that may take many years. 

A prominent failure of peace negotiations and their supporting parties is the misrepresentation of truth commissions as the sole form of retribution or reconciliation. While the right to truth for the victims of conflict is inherent, the method may differ from case to case, or individual to individual. Some ‘post-conflict’ regions may only require the changes to be infrastructural or policy based, as opposed to publicly denouncing those involved in the conflict. 

Truth commissions have, and are mistaken for solution bringers. Only meant to investigate and answer the questions of human rights violations, truth commissions are only able to report. The changes needed for overall reconciliation and or forgiveness is up to both the parties involved and the society in which they are conducted, not the truth commission themselves. 

Other prominent examples, this time truth commissions created purely by a civil society group, the first is Memorial, a Russian organisation set up to chronicle government human rights abuses spanning back to the Russian Revolution. The second is Brazil: Nunca Mais, perhaps one of the most well known truth commissions set up by a non-governmental organisation (NGO). After drawn out investigations and copies of documents made by lawyers associated with the Catholic Church of Brazil, culminated in a final report that in August 1985 finally published “allegations of torture and murder by government forces since the military takeover in 1964” (Brahm, 2009:6).

When, if at all, is it best to implement a truth commission? Are truth commissions the most appropriate form of transitional justice?

An integral part of truth commission implementation is context. The ignorance of context, specifically that each conflict is a case unique unto itself more often than not leads to failed truth commissions. Factors that can affect both the truth commission itself and the context in which the commission may be integrated into are peace spoilers, infrastructure (whether buildings or people) and trust. Trust plays an important role in the success of a truth commission, often a lack of domestic trust has proven more advantageous, as with Guatemala, but a failure of international trust often leads to a drawn out process and a lack of resources. Understanding both the conflict and ‘post-conflict’ landscape is important in order to best investigate potential crimes of a party and or government. Even previous to this a strong understanding of the political make-up of a nation state previously in conflict, namely to establish whether a truth commission is the best method for that particular case.

Further to this, some cases may outline a truth commission and therefore, an investigation should take place but not immediately after the process of a peaceful transition. Some researchers claim that breaking with the previous crimes of a conflict is best to create the opportunity for peaceful transition. In short, the argument for either a delayed or no investigation at all may be argued to have a stronger political impact as opposed to a truth commission that may fail, and demoralise the victims (Brahm, 2009).

Many questions arise when discussing truth commissions, the role that they play is far more important in association with peace transitions and maintenance, specifically when linked with the role reconciliation plays within a ‘post-conflict’ context. Some question whether truth commissions are impartial enough to focus on the rights of victims? Are they developed enough to create strong transitional justice plans? 

There are many downsides to any method of conflict transformation, the transition from violence to peace is not easily navigated in any context and so selecting the correct method to aid these transitions is key. In some cases a truth commission is not required, but “knowing the truth about the past is not only an important step toward justice” but it recognises the rights of victims in general (ICTJ, 2018:45). Often these victims can “benefit from other measures and re-forms” (ICTJ, 2018:45). Dependent on the failures, for example, in cases where peace spoilers are strong, i.e. Burundi, and may pose a threat to victims; then security sector reform should remain a priority (ICTJ, 2018). Where there is a lack of transparency, access to information should be increased accountability should be adapted (ICTJ, 2018). 

Some have taken up the use of truth commissions and restorative justice as an ideal for all criminal justice (Van Ness, 1993). The interlinking nature of reconciliation when it comes to criminal responsibility and acceptance are ubiquitous for the development of peaceful transition whether in a ‘post-conflict’ framework or in criminal justice systems. This is not to say that there have not been reservations raised, the use of restorative justice and in this case evidence from truth commissions are argued to possibility cause “disparity in sentencing” which in turn could upset the balance of restorative justice values and “the values of the current justice system” (Van Ness, 1993; Gavrielides, 2007:17).

The use of truth commissions within ‘post-conflict’ frameworks theoretically map out the path for not only transitions to peace but for reconciliation between victim and oppressor. As discussed, peace spoilers and trust failures play integral roles when it comes to the transition of conflict regions and the use of truth commissions can often be undermined by them. It is, however, fundamental to the reconciliation process for public acknowledgement of both the crimes and the transition to mutual peace between those who have been made victims and those who have oppressed. With the proliferation of truth commissions seen to be parallel to that of expanding powers and scope, a truth commission’s utility is often undermined by the expanse of focus. Failing to achieve the simple focuses termed in the beginning of this paper, truth commissions are often at the mercy of international and domestic support. The failure of a truth commission in a post-conflict or transitional society can be more damaging than the lack of one overall. The failure is not contained to the infrastructure that houses the truth commission but affects both the victims involved in the conflict and perhaps further affecting the transitional framework of the newly peaceful society itself. Overall it is hard to encompass the argument for the most appropriate actions for an international actor to take in conflict transformation is one that this paper has ignored due to its ignorance to the context of the conflict nation itself. The focus should be on the transition from conflict to peace itself, and therefore, the method in which best benefits each particular nation state or case should be used. This method is found when the conflict is understood fully. So to conclude my argument would be to best understand a conflict, and assist domestic infrastructures and forces to best transition from conflict to peace in a process that best benefits that particular case or nation.

Image Credit: Canva Images


Brahm, E. (2006). Truth and Consequences: The Impact of Truth Commissions in Transitional Societies. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder. 

Bronkhorst, D. (1995). Truth and Reconciliation, Obstacles and Opportunities for Human Rights. Amsterdam: Amnesty International Dutch Section. 

Eglash, A. (1977). ‘Beyond Restitution: Creative Restitution’, in J. Hudson and B. Galaway (eds) Restitution in Criminal justice, Lexington, MA: DC Heath and Company. 

Freeman, M. (2006). Truth Commissions and Procedural Fairness (1st ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Gavrielides, T (2007) Restorative Justice Theory and Practice: Addressing the Discrepancy  Available at: https://www.peacepalacelibrary.nl/ebooks/files/HEUNI_8oiteshk6w.pdf Accessed: 20th April 2018

Hayner, P. B. (1994). Fifteen Truth Commissions – 1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study. Human Rights Quarterly, 16(4), 597-655. 

Hayner, P. B. (2000). Past Truths, Present Dangers: The Role of Official Truth Seeking in Conflict Resolution and Prevention. In P. C. Stern & D. Druckman (Eds.), International conflict resolution after the cold war (pp. 338-382). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 

Kenney, C. D., & Spears, D. E. (2005, September 1-4). Truth and Consequences: Do Truth Commissions Promote Democratization? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington DC. 

Mendeloff, D. (2004). Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Curb the Enthusiasm? International Studies Review, 6(3), 355-380. 

Payne, L. A., Olsen, T. D., & Reiter, A. G. (Forthcoming). Engaging the Past to Safeguard the Future: Transitional Justice in Comparative Perspective.Unpublished manuscript, Madison, WI. 

Sikkink, K., & Walling, C. B. (2007). The Impact of Human Rights Trials in Latin America. Journal of Peace Research, 44(4), 427-445. 

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), 2018 Available at: https://www.ictj.org Accessed: 14th April 2018

Van Ness, D. (1993) ‘Restorative Justice and international human rights’ 


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