Brazil: a Non-Transitional Truth Commission

Guest post by Professor Onur Bakiner. Bakiner is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University. He completed his dissertation, entitled “Coming to Terms with the Past: Power, Memory and Legitimacy in Truth Commissions,” in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. This research project, now a book manuscript under review, addresses questions of transitional justice with insights from scholarship on social memory, history and political legitimacy. It combines comparative qualitative research on truth commissions (specifically in Chile and Peru) with reflections on the ethics and politics of the “public use of history” and social memory.

His research and teaching interests include memory politics, transitional justice, Latin American politics, and normative political theory. His article, entitled “From Denial to Reluctant Dialogue: the Chilean Military’s Confrontation with Human Rights (1990-2006)” was published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice in 2010.

His may be contacted at obakiner at sfu dot ca or through his website, www dot onurbakiner dot com.

Brazil: a Non-Transitional Truth Commission

Truth commissions stand out as the most widely used transitional justice mechanism in the contemporary world. Scholars disagree on definitional issues, which explains why some consider Uganda’s 1974 Commission of Inquiry as the first truth commission, whereas others start the history of commissions with Argentina’s 1983 Commission on the Disappeared. Brazil’s recently announced truth commission should be seen in light of the historical evolution of this transitional justice tool in the last three decades. Early commissions reflected the demand for truth and justice in the context of political transitions from authoritarianism to democracy and/or violent conflict to peace. Beginning with the early 2000s, however, one observes a new generation of fact-finding bodies, what I call non-transitional truth commissions. In relatively consolidated democracies like Uruguay, Panama, Paraguay, and Ecuador (as well as countries outside of Latin America, like South Korea) incoming governments set up truth commissions to investigate human rights violations that had taken place decades ago. In Chile, a new panel was mandated to study torture and sexual violence – categories of violations that were left out by the 1990 truth commission. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI created a fact-finding commission to uncover the atrocities that took place under his father’s rule – again, in the absence of regime transition. In other words, many of the later truth commissions address issues that do not necessarily reflect the tension between social demands and the constraints of a political transition.

Brazil’s new panel, created 26 years after the unofficial Commission of Inquiry that was sponsored by the Archbishop of São Paulo, will be one such non-transitional truth commission. The question that remains for scholars with a comparative bent is: what are the social and political factors that explain the emergence of non-transitional truth commissions? There is a tendency to frame the issue from a rational-choice perspective, and see in presidentially mandated truth commissions the attempt to delegitimize political rivals. I think the claim cannot be dismissed easily, but it misses the fact that persistence on the part of surviving victims, victims’ relatives and human rights organizations has made the formation of fact-finding bodies so many years after the political transition possible. Furthermore, many (but by no means all) of the politicians who support truth commissions were themselves victims of human rights violations – Dilma Rousseff being the chief example – or at least, the period of political violence transformed their awareness. This ideational change proved consequential for policy once those politicians assumed political power.

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