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Book Chapter

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Martha Fineman and Estelle Zinsstag




Intersentia Press




Over the last 35 years approximately forty truth commissions have investigated human rights violations and abuses in a wide range of countries and communities. Each of these forty commissions provides different lessons on how investigating and testifying about past abuse can lead to healing and change. I have participated in two of the more remarkable Truth and Reconciliation processes, the first as an observer, the other as an advisor. The former is perhaps the most widely known and discussed TRC process, the one which took place in South Africa from 1996 to 1998 that examined the entire apartheid era in that country. The other was the first TRC process in the United States that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina from 2004 to 2006.

In this article, the analysis will include the effect such commissions have on the particular types of abuse and violations suffered by women and the impact on women's lives. Indeed, one common critique of some of these processes has come from feminist scholars who have noted that they have ignored or minimized particular abuses suffered by women and failed to adequately include women's issues and perspectives among their findings. The first part of this chapter will review those critiques including an analysis of how they played out in the South African process. The purpose is to examine why the impact on women has been limited in so many TRC processes because of such factors as what is included in their mandates and who they define as victims. In so doing it will be demonstrated that their failure to focus on women turned what was supposed to be gender neutral into a male-dominated process. Where relevant, comparisons will be made to processes in other countries also.

The next section will extend the analysis of truth processes to the Greensboro Commission, often called the first US Truth Commission, to determine the impact of this process on the groups described above and discuss whether the TRC process resulted in reconciliation and the prevention of future human rights abuses. I will also analyze from a feminist perspective whether the truth process positively impacted the goals of greater social and economic justice in the community. Included will be a review of the TRC's formation, mandate and definition of victims, fact finding process and recommendations.

The final section will look at whether and how truth commissions may be useful in other communities or more broadly in the U.S. where there have been violations of human rights. This section will also draw conclusions about the impact on various groups, including women, and whether such commissions can be an effective tool in the struggle to bring about greater social and economic justice in this country.


Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-11

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