The government of Burundi has endorsed a UN plan to set up a truth and reconciliation commission as part of the country’s peace process. Years of civil war involving Tutsi and Hutu have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, but a peace deal is finally taking hold.
The UN Security Council now needs to pass a resolution backing a TRC in Burundi, as well as a special court to prosecute war crimes or human rights violations.
One of the most successful truth and reconciliation commissions operated in South Africa in the mid-90’s, following the end of apartheid. Richard Lyster is a former TRC commissioner and a human rights attorney in South Africa. From Durban, he spoke to English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about the difficulties in setting up such a commission.
He says, “One sort of thinks about a commission in terms of a charismatic leader, who leads the commission and a bunch of commissioners. In fact, it’s a huge entity. It’s way beyond just the commission itself. It has an infrastructure. It has staff, It has resources, it has vehicles. It has a whole range of things. There’s an enormous lot that should go on behind the scenes in setting up a truth commission. It’s a huge task.”
In establishing a TRC, Mr. Lyster says, “The most vital aspect is choosing the people who are going to sit on the commission. And that is very fundamental to the success or failure of the commission.” In South Africa, the TRC was led by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an internationally known figure. Mr. Lyster says, “Tutu was also seen as a sort of a fellow traveler, but he was never affiliated to a political party. He was a cleric and he was also a man who was able to cross racial and language borders.” He doubts the TRC would have been as successful without Archbishop Tutu.
The human rights attorney says while the TRC knew in advance what the testimony would be of those who told story of human rights abuses, it was important for witnesses and the country to share in a ‘cathartic’ event.
Also, while the natural urge of many people is to seek revenge against those who killed loved ones, the TRC must balance establishing the truth and amnesty for those who publicly testified about their criminal actions.