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Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law




Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) have investigated human rights violations and abuses in a wide range of countries and communities over the last thirty-five years. Created by people who believe finding truth through an examination of the past is necessary to build social and political trust, the goal of these processes has been to make findings and recommendations in order to strengthen or aid the transition to democracy, reduce conflict and create a basis for long term reconciliation, facilitate some form of transitional or restorative justice, and begin the process of change needed to avoid similar human rights violations in the future. Each of the approximately 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. First, from 1996 to 1998, I observed what is probably the most well-known TRC process: an examination of the apartheid era in South Africa. Then, from 2004 to 2006, I was an advisor for the first TRC process in the United States that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a much narrower and less publicized process that looked at one incident in Greensboro’s past in order to help bridge the city's existing class and racial di vides. In both instances, I had the opportunity to interview key staff members and witnesses in addition to ma king my own observations. As a result of these experiences, I have been able to analyze several of the key problems facing TRCs, such as how they should be constructed, what needs to be included in their mandates, what is the best way to engage in fact finding, and how they can maximize the impact of their final reports including the implementation of their recommendations. This Article focuses on the narrower question of whether these processes can effectively remediate human rights violations suffered particularly by women.

In order to create a framework for this analysis, it is important to note the somewhat obvious point that truth commissions impact people to varying degrees depending on how closely they are connected to the events in question. Thus, the persons most affected are the actual participants in the events, i.e., the targets and perpetrators of the human rights violations or abuse that is being investigated. Next in terms of impact are the secondary survivors, who include the family members of those who were hurt and others who knew or witnessed people involved in the abuse. Then there is the larger community of people who were either alive at the time of the events and were living where they took place, or people who now live in the city, town, or country where the violations occurred and who have to deal with their ongoing impact. These community members may have been impacted directly by aspects of the abuse, like the victims of apartheid in South Africa or the victims of racial discrimination in Greensboro, but at a minimum, they are impacted by the silence or the lack of understanding about what occurred. Finally, there are people not directly involved in any way who nevertheless learn about the process and engage with it. Such engagement may come from attending public hearings or seeing them unfold on television, talking to those involved, watching a movie, or reading about the process in the media or in the final report. The impact on this group becomes significant when, after learning about what transpired elsewhere, including the abuses that occurred, the motives behind them, and the pain of the survivors, these observers are able to relate those events to ones locally in a way that helps promote reconciliation in their community. An analysis of the impact that TRCs have had on human rights violations committed against women needs to include how women have been affected at each of these levels of contact. Because almost all TRCs have ultimately omitted the abuses suffered by women from their findings or, more importantly, their recommendations, feminist scholars have become some of the most visible critics of their efforts.

Part II begins with a review of those critiques, which makes it possible to identify the factors that lead to the disregard of human rights violations against women. It also demonstrates how the failure to focus on women turns what were supposed to be gender-neutral processes into male-centered ones. Part III describes particular truth commission efforts with a primary focus on South Africa and its failure with regard to remediating the harms to women. Part IV discusses the Sierra Leone process, which best addressed women's concerns, and three others, including Greensboro, which fall somewhere in the middle. Part V addresses how these problems can be remedied in the future, including a plan for how to establish a TRC designed to specifically investigate violence against women.

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