Argentina, Chile and El Salvador established the first truth and reconciliation commissions in the 1980s and early 1990s as an alternative to prosecutions, elevating collective storytelling and chronicling over individual culpability. Unlike war crimes trials, such commissions expose the crimes of one’s own government: mass kidnappings, executions and other horrors, including, in South Africa, the many atrocities of apartheid. Influenced by the victims rights movement and the emerging field of trauma studies, the commissions emphasize the importance of giving victims the chance to tell their stories, for the sake of healing and for the sake of establishing a complete historical record. At the convening of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, its head, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said, “We are charged to unearth the truth about our dark past, to lay the ghosts of the past so that they will not return to haunt us.”
There are strong arguments for truth and reconciliation commissions in the United States in cases of injustice where the historical record needs assembling and a moral reckoning needs to happen, and where there is no real cost to forfeiting prosecution. Black Lives Matter activists have called for a truth and reconciliation commission to chronicle the long history of racial injustice in the United States, from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration. And last month, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States, to document “the painful and traumatic history of genocide and forced assimilation by the federal government,” according to Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo whose grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands of children taken from their families as part of a federal policy to strip Indigenous peoples of their language, culture and sovereignty.