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Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling, and Postconflict Peacebuilding: Curb the Enthusiasm?

Author(s): David Mendeloff


Source: International Studies Review, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 355-380
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The International Studies Association
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InternationalStudies Review (2004) 6, 355-380

REFLECTION, EVALUATION, INTEGRATION

Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling, and


Postconflict Peacebuilding:
Curb the Enthusiasm?'
DAVID MENDELOFF
Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University
This essay evaluates popular and scholarly claims about the peacepromoting benefits of formal truth-telling and truth-seeking mechanisms in the aftermath of civil wars. Its purpose is twofold. First, it
synthesizes and clearly articulates in one place the full range of claims
about the relationship between truth-telling and peacebuilding. Second,
it evaluates these claims by systematically examining the core factual and
theoretical assumptions on which they are based. An argument is made
flawed or
that many such claims-and their core assumptions-are
highly contentious as well as that truth-telling advocates claim far more
about the power of truth-telling than logic or evidence dictates. This is
not to say that truth-telling has no role to play in preventing the resumption of violent conflict in postwar societies, only that proponents
likely overstate its importance. Before proclaiming the necessity of truth
commissions or trials in the aftermath of violent conflict, we need to
better understand how truth-telling prevents the recurrence of civil war,
how important it is relative to other factors and other peacebuilding
strategies, and when it is likely to prove helpful, harmful, or irrelevant.

Over the past decade a general consensus has emerged on the need for states and
societies to address past crimes and misdeeds in the aftermath of war and violent
conflict. Scholars and practitioners of peacebuilding, as well as publics of war-torn
societies, increasingly agree that some kind of formal accounting of the past is
essential to achieve lasting, "self-enforcing" peace in war-torn states. Formal mechin the form of criminal
anisms for the public accounting of wartime abuses-either
trials or less punitive historical commissions-are
now part of the standard repertoire of international peacebuilding activities and are routinely included in
negotiated peace settlements. Truth-telling (which is used interchangeably with
truth-seeking in this essay) is increasingly considered a necessary, if not vital, component of the peacebuilding process, as important as demobilization, disarmament,

'Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Workshop on War Memory, MIT Center for International
Studies, January 25, 2003, and at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association in Portland, Oregon,
March 1, 2003. The author thanks David Carment, Whan Choi, Jean Daudelin, Fen Hampson, Cynthia Irvin, Loren
King, Roy Licklider, Jennifer Lind, Roger Peterson, Benjamin Valentino, Stephen Van Evera and Inger Weibust.
Sarah Noble and Francis Bedros provided valuable research assistance.
? 2004 International Studies Review.
Publishedby BlackwellPublishing,350 MainStreet,Malden,MA02148, USA,and 9600 GarsingtonRoad,OxfordOX4 2DQ, UK.

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356

Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling,and PostconflictPeacebuilding

or the holding of postwar elections.2 Recently, a major study on postconflict reconstruction by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Association of the United States Army proclaimed truth-telling to be one of "four
pillars" of successful peacebuilding (Flournoy and Pen 2002; Hamre and Sullivan
2002). In its comprehensive handbook for international donors, nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), and postconflict governments, the International Institute for
Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) (2003) includes truth-telling as one of
four necessary mechanisms for achieving reconciliation, and ultimately lasting
peace, after violent conflict. In the aftermath of the recent Iraq war, many have
stated that a formal accounting of Baath party crimes is necessary to ease the
transition to a peaceful society (Eizenstat 2003; International Center for Transitional Justice 2003).
But is such enthusiasm for truth-seeking warranted? How important is truthtelling in the peacebuilding process? Is it necessary or sufficient to consolidate
peace in the aftermath of violent civil war? Truth-telling advocates make a number
of claims about the peace-promoting effects of truth-seeking: it (1) assures justice,
(2) promotes social and psychological healing, (3) fosters reconciliation, and
(4) deters future crimes, all of which help consolidate peace in war-torn societies.
Yet, how compelling are these claims? How sound is the causal logic? How valid are
the theoretical and factual assumptions on which they are based? These are the
questions this essay addresses.
The purpose of this essay is to evaluate popular and scholarly truth-telling claims
advanced in the postconflict justice and peacebuilding literatures. The primary aim
is to take stock of the current state of knowledge regarding the effects of truthtelling on the peacebuilding process. An argument will be made that despite claims
of truth-telling advocates, we actually know very little about the impact of truthtelling or truth-seeking on peace. Claims about the peace-promoting effects of
formal truth-telling mechanisms rest far more on faith than on sound logic or
empirical evidence. The literature has done a poor job of specifying the logic of
truth-telling arguments, defining and clarifying key concepts, operationalizing key
variables, indicating the conditions under which proposed relationships hold, providing compelling empirical evidence to support core assumptions, and testing
claims systematically against competing explanations. Assertions are frequently
presented as empirical fact when they are merely untested hypotheses. In short,
truth-telling advocates claim more about the power of truth-telling than logic or
evidence dictates.
This last statement is not meant to imply that truth-telling has no role to play as a
conflict prevention tool in postwar societies, only that it remains unclear how significant it is. Truth-telling advocates likely overstate the case. Compelling arguments and limited evidence have, indeed, been offered regarding the role of
chauvinist, hypernationalist mythmaking; rooted in lies and historical distortion,
such myth-making has fostered certain intrastate and interstate wars (Posen 1993;
Van Evera 1994; Brown 1996, 2001; Byman and Van Evera 1998; Mertus 1999;
Snyder 2000; Kaufman 2001; Mendeloff 2001; Byman 2002). It follows that efforts
taken to prevent such mythmaking might also prevent a return to violent conflict in
certain war-torn societies. However, we still have insufficient information regarding
how that can be done. It is certainly open to question how effective formal
truth-seeking mechanisms-either trials or truth commissions--can be in precluding the emergence of chauvinist mythmaking in the long term. The impact of
truth-telling mechanisms in the short-term consolidation of peace is almost certainly negligible, if not irrelevant. In short, before proclaiming the necessity of
2Broad theoretical treatments of peacebuilding, such as those by Hampson (1997) and Licklider (2001), include
truth-telling among the necessary components of a successful peace process, though they do not single it out
exclusively nor necessarily endorse its utility.

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DAVID MENDELOFF

357

truth-telling in the aftermath of violent conflict, we need to do a better job of clearly


specifying how truth-telling will benefit peacebuilding, under what conditions, and
after which types of conflicts as well as when it helps consolidate peace and when it
does not.
Before turning to such tasks, however, five caveats are in order. First, this essay
evaluates truth-telling broadly, encompassing all formal, officially sanctioned public
mechanisms for examining the causes and conduct of a past war and accounting for
crimes and abuses committed during wartime. This evaluation includes criminal
investigations and prosecutions as well as less punitive historical fact-finding or
"truth commissions." Of course, truth-telling and truth-seeking mechanisms differ
in important ways-the logic of trials is different from the logic of truth commissions, for example. Indeed, the postconflict justice literature is dominated by a
debate over alternative truth-telling mechanisms -namely, the relative merits of
retributive versus restorative justice approaches. Nonetheless, advocates of both
sides share the same core belief that public accounting for wartime misconduct is
necessary for peace and stability. They differ only over the mechanisms by which
the truth is uncovered and how that information is used-either to punish those
found guilty of abuses or merely to expose such actions in the court of public
opinion. It is the shared core assumptions that this essay examines.
Second, "truth-telling" speaks to three distinct, yet overlapping issues: (a) the
causes and prevention of war, (b) human rights violations during peacetime, and
(c) the commission of crimes during wartime. The present essay is concerned with
the first issue. The others are important and may have some implications for war
prevention, but they are ultimately distinct. Thus, truth-telling may play a role in
preventing human rights violations during peacetime or preventing the commission of crimes during wartime, but these concerns are analytically distinct from its
role in preventing war. As noted below, one problem with the literature is that these
issues are often conflated, for example, implicit-and contentious-assumptions
are made about the causal links between human rights violations and the causes
and prevention of war.
Third, the essay focuses exclusively on formal, officially sanctioned, public truthtelling mechanisms. This focus is adopted because the postconflict justice and the
peacebuilding literatures are concerned with these formal mechanisms and ascribe
importance to them. However, such formal institutions may not be the only, nor the
most effective, way to account for past misdeeds.
Fourth, the essay focuses on the role of truth-telling after civil wars. Once again,
this tack is taken not because truth-telling in the aftermath of interstate wars is
unworthy of attention, but because the postconflict justice and peacebuilding
literatures focus almost exclusively on the aftermath of internal conflicts. Exceptions
to this last statement include the work of Catherine Lu (2002), who looks at the
aftermath of World War I, and the research of William Long and Peter Brecke
(2003).
Fifth, and finally, this essay draws upon the main theoretical and empirical work
on truth-telling and peacebuilding. This literature is diverse in opinions and approaches. However, the task here is to focus on the common claims and assumptions that cut across the literature. As a result, the reader will note that the author

occasionally will simplify subtle and complex arguments and make general statements for which exceptions are bound to exist. Such exceptions will be noted.
This essay consists of three sections. Section one summarizes eight main claims
advanced about the peace-promoting effects of truth-telling. Section two critically
examines these claims by assessing the core factual and theoretical assumptions on
which they are based. An argument is made that most of these assumptions are
dubious or, at a minimum, highly contentious. The third and concluding section
offers thoughts about the likely value of truth-telling and proposes an agenda for
future research.

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358

and PostconflictPeacebuilding
Truth-Seeking,
Truth-Telling,

The Peace-Promoting Effects of Truth-Telling


It is commonly argued that truth-telling and peace go hand in hand. Without truthtelling, writes M. Cherif Bassiouni (1996:23), "the embers of yesterday's conflict
can become the fire of tomorrow's renewed conflict." 'Just as wounds fester when
they are not exposed to the open air," writes Elizabeth Kiss (2000:72), "so unacknowledged injustice can poison societies and produce the cycles of distrust, hatred,
and violence we have witnessed in many parts of the world." But how exactly does
truth-telling promote peace? Truth-telling advocates offer a host of reasons why
exposing and publicly accounting for wartime misdeeds is an essential component
of the peacebuilding process. Specifically, at least eight primary (and overlapping)
claims are made about the peace-promoting effects of truth-telling. Truth-telling
(1) encourages social healing and reconciliation, (2) promotes justice, (3) allows for
the establishment of an official historical record, (4) serves a public education
function, (5) aids institutional reform, (6) helps promote democracy, and (7) preempts as well as (8) deters future atrocities. Each claim and its general causal logic,
summarized in Table 1, are detailed below.

TABLE1. Eight Primary Peace-Promoting Effects of Truth-Telling (TT)


1. Social Healing and Reconciliation
1.1. TT - healing of individual victims -, group reconciliation -* peace
1.2. TT - individualized responsibility for crimes -4 group reconciliation - peace
2. Justice
2.1. TT -- justice - psychological healing of individual victims
2.2. TT - justice - prevention of revenge killings -+ peace
2.3 TT -~ justice - individual criminal accountability -> peace

->

group reconciliation

peace

3. Official,AuthoritativeHistoricalRecord
3.1. TT - official historical record - healing of victims -> group reconciliation -+ peace
3.2. TT - official historical record - new shared history -+ group reconciliation -* peace
3.3. TT - official historical record -+ settling of conflict over past -> power-sharing -+ peace
4. Public Education
4.1. TT?
learned lessons of the past - peace
4.2. TT - human rights education -4 human rights culture -> peace
5. InstitutionalReform
5.1. TT -+ exposes institutional pathologies -- institutional reform -+ preemption --+ peace
6. Democracy
6.1. TT -+ justice -+ rule of law --+ democracy -+ peace
6.2. TT - settling of conflict over past -+ power-sharing -> strengthened democracy -+ peace
7. Preemption
7.1. TT -4 arrest/incarceration of war criminals -+ preemption of crimes -* end to human rights
abuses - peace
7.2. TT -+ public shaming/ostracism -* preemption of crimes -> end to human rights
abuses -* peace
7.3. TT --+discrediting of old regime/elites -* preemption of return to power -* end to human
rights abuses -* peace
8. Deterrence
8.1. TT - punishment -- accountability -+ deterrence of future crimes -+ end to human rights
abuses -+ peace
8.2. TT -4 public shaming/ostracism -+ deterrence of future crimes -* end to human rights
abuses -+ peace

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DAVIDMENDELOFF

359

Social Healing and Reconciliation


One of the primary claims of the postconflict justice and peacebuilding literature is
that truth-telling promotes social healing and reconciliation. A common refrain
is that "after an international conflict or civil war in which grave human rights
abuses have been committed the truth must be told before there can be a successful reconciliation" (Scharf 1997:400; also see International IDEA 2003). Reconciliation is especially encouraged through the psychological healing of individual
victims and survivors. By exposing the truth of past crimes, victims and
survivors can begin to heal from the trauma of war and receive closure. Once
they have begun to heal, they can then work toward reconciling with their
former adversaries. Truth-telling, in short, is therapeutic (Minow 1998:61-87;
Hayner 2001:133-153). "National reconciliation and individual rehabilitation,"
writes Michael Scharf (1997:379), "are facilitated by acknowledging the suffering
of victims and their families, helping to resolve uncertain cases, and allowing victims
to tell their story, thus serving a therapeutic purpose for an entire country, and
imparting to the citizenry a sense of dignity and empowerment that could help
them move beyond the pain of the past." Judith Herman (1994:1) has similarly
argued, "remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites
both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual
victims."
Indeed, the process of truth-telling is considered just as important as the truth
itself (Popkin and Roht-Arriaza 1995:114). "Telling the truth about their wounds,"
writes Kiss (2000:72), "can heal the wounded-and perhaps listening to such stories can help heal societies." This, of course, was the main premise of the South
African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As the TRC's architect Archbishop Desmond Tutu has asserted, "there is no healing without truth" (quoted in
Kiss 2000:72).
But the healing power of truth-telling is not limited to truth commissions. In
making the case for criminal prosecutions, Payam Akhavan (1998:766), a former
prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
(ICTY), has contended that "truth telling will also enable victims to hear and see
their stories told-either their own personal stories or stories like theirs-in an
officially sanctioned forum before the international community." Thus, Richard
Goldstone (1996:491), who served as chief prosecutor of the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), notes, "the work of truth commissions or judicial inquiries share with criminal prosecution the ability to bring
significant satisfaction to victims. If that satisfaction is sufficiently widespread within
a community, it can have a soothing effect upon a whole society." The Commission
Nationale Consultative des Droits de l'Homme and the International Commission
of Jurists (1993:337) has similarly emphasized the common purpose of trials and
truth commissions, noting "regardless of the situation, we all agree that the chief
priority is to establish the facts, that is, to pursue an investigation. This is an obligation owed the victims and their relatives, an obligation owed historical memory
and a safeguard against forgetting."
In addition to the psychological healing of individual wounds, truth-telling
encourages social healing and reconciliation by promoting individual over
collective guilt. When the truths of past crimes are exposed, individuals--not entire ethnic, religious, or cultural groups--are singled out for blame. This helps
mitigate the resumption of violence by preventing mass reprisals or revenge killings, but it also allows for adversarial groups to rebuild relationships more easily. As
Akhavan (1998:766) argues, "truth-telling promotes interethnic reconciliation
through the individualization of guilt in hate-mongering leaders and by disabusing
people of the myth that adversary ethnic groups bear collective responsibility
for crimes."

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360

and PostconflictPeacebuilding
Truth-Seeking,
Truth-Telling,

Justice
Closely related to social healing is the claim that truth-telling leads to peace by
promoting justice for victims of war crimes and their families. Exposing the truth,
assigning blame to perpetrators, and either punishing them or forcing them to
publicly admit their crimes, it is contended, helps achieve justice. As Goldstone
(1996:491) has argued, "the public and official exposure of the truth is itself a form
of justice, and it does not matter whether that exposure takes place in criminal or
civil proceedings." Justice, in turn, promotes peace in a variety of ways. A sense of
justice is often necessary for the personal, psychological healing that allows for
reconciliation. It also dampens motives for revenge killings. And when justice
comes about through criminal prosecutions, it breaks the cycle of violence
by stamping out impunity. It is the latter claim in particular that is the most
widely purveyed by the scholars and practitioners of international criminal law:
simply put, "there can be no peace without justice."3
Official Historical Record
The third main claim is that truth-telling promotes peace by providing the basis for
an official, authoritative account of past crimes and misdeeds. This account comes in
the form of the official record of a criminal trial or from a report of an investigative
commission and ostensibly promotes peace in at least four ways. First, it represents
official acknowledgment of crimes, thereby promoting healing of victims and contributing to reconciliation. Second, it provides an objective accounting of the past
that can be used as the basis for developing a common shared history, which in turn
helps serve as the basis for reconciliation. Third, it "closes the book" on a painful
history. By providing the definitive word on the past, it removes history as a point of
contention among former adversaries, allowing them to work together constructively in new power-sharing arrangements (Goldstone 1996:494; Hayner 2001).
And, fourth, an authoritative report, in the words of Michael Ignatieff (1996:113),
reduces the number of permissible lies in public discourse. Demagogues and ethnic
entrepreneurs will have less success inciting violence by appealing to historical distortions and myths if the truth is actually known (see also Huyse 2003:30).
Public Education
The fourth major peace-promoting effect of truth-telling is its role in educating the
nation about the events of the past, learning from history, and thereby preventing a
resumption of violence. As Prescilla Hayner (1994:607-609) argues, creating a credible account of human rights crimes "allows a society to learn from its past in order
to prevent a repetition of such violence in the future." Further, truth-telling educates the nation about respect for human rights. Formal truth-telling exercises
become public morality plays with great educational value. "The hope is that such
a record," according to Jeremy Sarkin (1999:800), "in combination with the recommendations made by the commission, will ensure the avoidance of such human
rights violations in the future and will also further the development of a human
rights culture."
InstitutionalReform
Another major claim is that truth-telling encourages peace through the promotion
of institutional reforms. Both trials and truth commissions, for example, reveal
structural institutional pathologies that led to war or contributed to wartime abuses.
3Benjamin B. Ferencz, former Nuremberg prosecutor, quoted on the home page of the International Criminal
Court at http://www.un.org/law/icc/general/overview.htm.

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Truth commissions, in particular, are often tasked with recommending institutional reforms that follow from their investigations. This serves peace largely by
prevention: changing the institutions that facilitated the war or the carrying out of
war crimes removes an important cause of future war and wartime abuses.
Democracy
One of the most widely claimed effects of truth-telling is that it promotes and
strengthens democratic institutions, practices, and values in war-torn societies.
Peace results in at least two ways. By promoting justice, truth-telling helps consolidate the rule of law, the pillar of democracy. Conflicts are then settled through
political deliberation and debate, not violence. Truth-telling also strengthens democracy by settling disputes over history. By bringing about a consensus on divisive
historical events, political elites can focus on governing rather than on debating the
past. A stronger democracy results, in which conflicts can be settled peacefully
rather than through violence.
Preemptionand Deterrence
Finally, it is often claimed that truth-telling advances peace through preemption
and deterrence. Preemption leads to peace by removing war criminals from society
or from public life so they will be unable to perpetrate violence in the future. Truthtelling encourages preemption in a number of ways. When truth-telling occurs
through criminal investigation and prosecution, it leads to the arrest and incarceration of convicted war criminals. Physically removing them from society prevents them from carrying out crimes in the future. Even mere indictments of alleged war criminals, it is argued, are enough to popularly discredit them, forcing their
retreat from public life (Akhavan 2001). Truth-telling through public investigative
commissions in which perpetrators are named can also have the same effect. Truthtelling can "prevent the old regime from attempting to retake control because the
process would eviscerate the old authorities' ability to deny responsibility, blame
others, or claim exigent circumstances. It would demystify the past and expose the
previous regime's brutality and its inability to govern fairly" (Sarkin 1999:801).
Truth-telling ostensibly leads to deterrence largely, but not exclusively, through
criminal prosecution. Deterrence of future war crimes is the primary claim of advocates of international criminal law. Punishing war criminals sends a signal that
society will not tolerate such behavior. This deters potential war criminals from
acting with impunity elsewhere. Yet, even if prosecutions do not result, truth-telling
still has a deterrent effect by holding perpetrators publicly accountable for their
actions. If war criminals are forced to publicly admit their crimes, even in exchange
for amnesty, they face public shaming and becoming ostracized by the community.
Many advocates of truth commissions, for example, contend that public shaming in
many cultures can be worse than criminal sanctions and thus can serve as an effective deterrent (Sarkin 1999:801; Hayner 2001:107-132). As Scharf (1997:394)
argues, "the very publicity of the truth about an individual's responsibility for
human rights crimes exposes the perpetrator to public ignominy and is therefore a
form of punishment." This, along with "the imposition of administrative sanctions
can have additional deterrent effects over both the whole of society and the individual subject to the penalty."
Evaluating Truth-Telling Claims
These eight claims encapsulate the most common arguments advanced about the
peace-promoting benefits of truth-telling. This section evaluates the claims by assessing the validity of the core factual and theoretical assumptions on which they

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362

and PostconflictPeacebuilding
Truth-Seeking,
Truth-Telling,

are based. The validity of truth-telling claims is only as strong as the assumptions on
which they are based. An argument will be made here that these assumptions are

either factuallyor logically flawed, highly contentious, or misconstrued,raising

serious questions about the proclaimed utility of truth-seeking mechanisms.


Before examining each of these assumptions, several key concepts require definition. Given that our task is to evaluate claims about the benefits of postconflict
truth-telling on the peacebuilding process, it is essential to understand what is
meant by "peacebuilding" and "peace." The definitions of these concepts are critical to assessing in even a rudimentary way the validity of claims about postconflict
truth-telling.

Definitionsand Measurement
Peacebuilding. Though still a point of debate, a consensuson what peacebuilding
is or ought to be is emerging.Peacebuildingis the processof consolidatingpeace in
the immediateaftermathof war and involvescarryingout activitiesthat help prevent the recurrenceof war over the long term-that is, by creatinginstitutionsand
mechanismsfor resolving internal conflict without resort to violence (Hampson
1997; Cousens 2001; Lund 2002). Two points about this definitionshould be emphasized.First,postconflictpeacebuildinghas both short-and long-termelements.
Distinguishingbetween them is critical.What is required for peace in the immediate aftermathof conflictis generallynot the same as what is required for longterm political,social, and economic reconstruction.One of the problemswith the
truth-tellingliteraturegenerallyis that it does not alwaysdisaggregatethese two
phases. Even if the distinctionis made, truth-tellingadvocatesoften emphasizethe
need to establishtruth-seekingmechanismsas quicklyas possible. The InternationalIDEA,for example, has advocatedincludingprovisionsfor truth-tellingin all
peace settlements, a move that has become increasinglycommon (Bloomfield
2003b:44).As the IDEA handbookargues, "the worst decision is to postpone addressing the difficultissues-the pain, the guilt, the emotions-in an attempt to
preserve stabilityand peace. The 'right time' to deal with these matters never
comes: they only become more difficultto deal with as time passes"(Bloomfield
2003b:48).4Yet,as will be arguedhere, evidenceand logic do not supportthe claim
thatformaltruth-tellingmechanismswillhave a discernableimpactin consolidating
peace in the short term. Becausethat period is probablythe single most important
determinantof long-term peace and stability(Stedman2002), the overall importance of truth-tellingin the peacebuildingprocess is probablyless importantthan
advocatesclaim.
Second, the ultimate goal of peacebuildingis war prevention. If war resumes,
perhapswithin a decade of concertedeffortsat prevention,peacebuildinghas obviouslyfailed.The truth-tellingliterature,however,often elides cleardefinitionand
measurementof goals. It conflates analyticallydistinct concepts-peace and democracy,peace and reconciliation,war prevention and the prevention of human
rights abuses during war.Although democracy,reconciliation,and human rights
are intuitively related to peace, they are nonetheless analytically distinct. The
problem is particularly acute with at least two of the eight claims--preemption and
deterrence. Arguments about removing war criminals from society or deterring war
crimes in the future are largely arguments about the prevention of war crimes, not
the promotion of peacebuilding. Even though measures taken to inhibit crimes of
war are worthwhile, these are not necessarily the same measures required for lasting peace once the war has ended.
4Atthe sametime they (see Bloomfield2003b:32)do acknowledge"experiencesuggeststhata rushed approach,
as regularlyadvocatedby nationaland internationalpeacemakersand facilitators,will almost certainlybe counterproductive."How they reconcilethese two contradictorypositionsremainsunclear.

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Peace. The previous discussion raises the larger issue of defining and measuring
peace itself. One reason why truth-telling claims conflate peace and democracy,
peace and reconciliation, and peace and human rights is that they implicitly (or
explicitly) utilize an expansive "positive" definition of peace. Peace is not merely the
absence of violent conflict and war, but the absence of "structural violence"-endemic socioeconomic and cultural (racial, ethnic, religious) inequality (Galtung
1969). Thus, respect for human rights, the rule of law, the absence of formal or
informal discrimination, intergroup harmony-in short, liberal, egalitarian, social
democracy-is considered necessary for peace to exist.
To avoid conflating analytically distinct concepts, we will use a modified minimal
definition of peace here: the absence of large-scale, organized violence or war and
the extremely low probability of the resumption of war. This definition rests on a
necessary "negative" definition of peace as the absence of war, but also recognizes
the importance of certain minimal qualitative indicators of peace. The latter means
that practices and institutions for the nonviolent resolution of conflicts (and the
prevention of the resumption of war) have been established and are stable and
functioning. However, in contrast to more expansive "positive" definitions of peace,
this definition does not necessarily require social, racial, or economic equality, the
absence of poverty or discrimination, intergroup harmony and cooperation, or fully
functioning liberal democratic institutions. Those are valuable aims for a society,
but they are not necessarily the same as peace (Byman 2002:5-9). The absence of
war is, in fact, a minimum requirement for the establishment of peace. Thus, it is
actually the easy test of the validity of truth-telling claims: if truth-telling cannot
bring about "negative" peace in a war-torn society, it can hardly be expected to
bring about "positive" peace. We can, however, debate whether or not, and to what
extent, issues of socioeconomic equality, human rights, rule of law, reconciliation,
and so on are necessary to prevent the resumption of war in postconflict societies.
In much of the literature these concepts are often treated simultaneously as independent variables, dependent variables, and measures or indicators. Thus, the
burden is on truth-telling advocates to establish a clear and logical causal connection between these factors. It is to this issue that we now turn.
CoreAssumptions
Truth-telling claims rest on the validity of a host of factual and theoretical assumptions about the causes of war and peace. These assumptions can be grouped
into three broad categories that include seventeen total assumptions addressing
various elements of the core logic of truth-telling claims. The core assumptions
are presented by category in Table 2. First are psychological assumptions (that is,
assumptions regarding the manipulation and effects of psychological variables-fears, insecurity, trauma, feelings of injustice-in order to bring about
peace). Second are assumptions about identity and its relation to war and
peace (that is, assumptions about the manipulation and effects of historical
beliefs and national identities). Third are institutional and normative assumptions
(that is, assumptions about the creation, manipulation, and effects of new social
and political institutions and norms). How valid are each of these types of assumptions? What does this evaluation tell us about the validity of the larger truth-telling
claims?
Psychological Assumptions. Table 2 indicates that many truth-telling claims rest
on the validity of at least eight psychologically rooted assumptions. The first seven
assumptions lie at the heart of the core claim about truth-telling--that it leads to
peace through social healing and reconciliation.
Assumption1i--the belief that individual psychology is essentially the same as
group or national psychology (or that it is similar enough that we can generalize

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and PostconflictPeacebuilding
Truth-Telling,
Truth-Seeking,
TABLE
2. Core Assumptionsof Truth-TellingClaims

PsychologicalAssumptions
1. Personal healing promotes national healing.
2. Truth-telling promotes individual healing after psychological trauma.
3. National reconciliation is peace-promoting.
4. Truth-telling promotes reconciliation.
5. Justice (or the pursuit of justice) is necessary for peace.
6. Truth-telling can promote individual over collective guilt.
7. Collective guilt is dangerous and undesirable.
8. Forgetting, suppressing, or distorting the past causes war.
IdentityAssumptions
9. Divided societies are better off held together than separated.
10. Shared, collective identities are peace-promoting.
11. Historical beliefs and national identities are relatively easy to manipulate.
12. Truth-telling can serve as the basis of a new shared identity.
Institutionaland NormativeAssumptions
13. Democracies are less prone to civil war.
14. The truth promotes democracy.
15. Truth-telling promotes an accurate historical record.
16. Truth-telling promotes respect for human rights and the rule of law.
17. Respect for human rights and the rule of law is peace-promoting.

from individuals to societies and the nation)-is pervasive in the truth-telling and
postconflict justice literature. "What is true of individuals emerging from massive
abuse and trauma," asserts Neil Kritz (1999:168), "is no less true of nations: mechanisms are needed to confront and reckon with that past, facilitating closure rather
than repression." War crimes create "social psychoses" that must be treated
through truth-telling (Cobban 2002). Tina Rosenberg (1995:26), for example, has
argued that societies, like individuals, can suffer posttraumatic stress disorder. Nations that repress traumatic episodes rather than confront them directly, just like
traumatized individuals, are unlikely to recover from that trauma. Brandon Hamber (2001:134, emphasis added) concurs: "Psychologically speaking, sleeping dogs
do not lie; past traumas do not simply pass or disappear with the passage of time.
The past will not let itself be ignored and past traumas can alwaysbe expected to
have emotional consequences for an individual and societyat some later stage."
The validity of such claims, however, is questionable. First, little empirical research supports this logic. As Martha Minow (1998:63) has shown, "when it comes
to national healing, it is simply unclear whether theories and evidence of individual
recovery from violence have much bearing." It is also problematic intuitively. As
Ignatieff (1996:110) has asked, "do nations, like individuals, have psyches? ... Can
we speak of nations 'working through' a civil war or atrocity like we speak of
individuals working through a traumatic memory or event?" In fact, "individuals
may be made ill by repression of their own past but it is less clear that what holds
true for individuals must also hold true for societies" (Ignatieff 1996:121; see also
Hamber and Wilson 2002). In short, to assume that we can generalize from individual experience to the societal or national level is dubious.
Yet, even if a direct relationship between individual and societal or national
healing could be established, does truth-telling, in fact, promote individual healing
after psychological trauma (Assumption2)? Here as well, the assumption is suspect.
The evidence from clinical research regarding the treatment of posttraumatic stress
disorder and other psychological disorders is in actuality quite mixed. No consensus exists among clinical psychologists on how best to treat victims of emotional
trauma. Individuals appear to be unique and to respond differently to the same

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therapies. In some cases, hearing the truth is beneficial and ultimately helps individuals heal; in other cases, the truth can retraumatize victims and make their
suffering worse. Despite these data, a good deal of the truth-telling literature touts
the "healthy catharsis" involved in testifying at trials or truth-commissions or from
hearing confessions of perpetrators.5 Clinical psychologists, however, generally
concur that cathartic experiences should be avoided except under highly controlled
conditions because the dangers of retraumatization could be much greater than the
potential benefits (Minow 1998; Allan and Allan 2000:472-473; Hayner 2001).
Moreover, great differences exist between truth-telling introduced into a professional relationship between a therapist and patient in a controlled clinical setting
and public truth-telling in the aftermath of violent conflict. Very little, if any, evidence exists that formal truth-telling institutions actually benefit individuals' emotional or psychological health. No systematic studies of the psychological effects of
truth-telling exist (Hamber 2001:137; Hayner 2001:135). Although some limited
studies have been conducted on the psychological effects of the South African TRC,
the evidence is purely anecdotal. Indeed, the truth-telling literature relies heavily
on anecdotal evidence. Even some of the more balanced discussions of truth-telling
are guilty of over-generalizing from isolated cases. Ignatieff (1996:121), for example, who has a critical view of truth-telling claims, nonetheless points to anecdotal
evidence in arguing that "individuals can be helped to heal and to reconcile by
public rituals of atonement." Although Minow (1998:57) acknowledges the "limitations in the therapeutic value of commissions for individuals and limitations in
our knowledge of societal healing," she (Minow 1998:66), nonetheless, concludes
that "anecdotal evidence suggests the healing power of speaking about trauma."
However, anecdotal evidence can also speak to the dangers of truth-telling. In an
analysis of the effects of the TRC, psychologists Alfred and Marietjie Allan
(2000:472-473) note that "there are no empirical or other data that suggest that
any long-term healing followed for witnesses who experienced catharsis while giving testimony to the TRC. Anecdotal evidence is that it sometimes caused immediate, and maybe enduring, trauma." Yet, even they are guilty of overvaluing truthtelling benefits. Although their own study failed to determine "whether the reconciliation at an individual level has an effect on national reconciliation," they
nonetheless conclude that "the TRC was relatively successful as a therapeutic tool"
and advocate policies that promote personal psychological healing as a way to
national reconciliation (Allan and Allan 2000:463-464).
None of this is to say that the psychological healing of individual victims and
survivors is unimportant. Survivors of wartime violence and brutality often do
suffer from lasting emotional and physical distress. Making efforts to help ease the
suffering of those individuals is worthwhile. But in the absence of compelling
evidence, we should be skeptical of claims that formal truth-telling mechanisms are
the best way to help or that such "psychological healing" in general is somehow
necessary to build and maintain peace in postconflict societies.
Even if we could establish a clear link between truth-telling and personal healing
and between individual and societal or national healing, however, is it true that
national reconciliation is necessarily peace-promoting (Assumption3)? Part of the
problem with this assumption is the term "reconciliation," and how it is used (Borer
2001; Tepperman 2002:134-135; Huyse 2003:19-33). Peace and reconciliation, as
noted above, are frequently conflated although, in fact, they are analytically distinct.
Like the term "peace," "reconciliation" has been defined "negatively" to mean
"nonlethal coexistence" (Crocker 2000:99-121) or "rapprochement" (Putnam
2002:251) among former adversaries as well as "positively" to mean intergroup
harmony and cooperation and a relationship free of bias, bigotry, hatred, and
5A notably more nuanced and qualified view is offered by Hayner (2001) and Freeman and Hayner (2003).

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suspicion (Lederach 1997; Pankhurst 1999:240-241; Gutman and Thompson


2000:22-44). Both of these formulations, however, are as distinct as the competing
definitions of peace. Moreover, it is not just academics, but also individual groups in
postconflict societies, who often disagree over what constitutes reconciliation (van
Zyl 1999; Kemali 2001:140). The ambiguity of the term makes it particularly difficult to operationalize and measure. Without clear indicators, it is impossible to
discern the effects of truth-telling on reconciliation (Gibson 2003).
The problem is complicated because reconciliation is often used simultaneously
as a synonym for peace, as an independent cause of peace, and as an indicator or
measure of peace. Interestingly, very few studies (although Andrew Rigby's
2001:183-192 is an exception) view reconciliation as a consequence of peace, although such a view is just as plausible as the opposite claims. Indeed, a similar
argument can be made of the truth-telling literature as a whole. It is just as likely
that peace (the absence of violent conflict and war and the low probability of the
resumption of war) allows truth-telling to take place rather than the reverse.
Say we define peace as the absence of large-scale violent conflict and the low
probability of the resumption of civil war, and we define reconciliation broadly,
even then empirical evidence for a clear relationship is hardly conclusive.6 Few of
the cases regularly examined in the postconflict justice and peacebuilding literatures-South Africa, El Salvador, Guatemala, Rwanda, the former Yugoslaviaoffer clear examples of "harmony and cooperation" among former adversaries.
For example, few observers of South Africa (see Wilson 2001), which has received
the lion's share of academic attention, would claim that anything approximating
reconciliation has taken place since the completion of the TRC. Yet, in none of
these cases does there appear to be any danger of a resumption of civil war. Although some form of reconciliation may be important after certain kinds of internal
conflicts--namely, those that have ended through negotiated settlement in which
adversaries must live together, side-by-side (see comments by Henry Steiner in the
Harvard Law School Human Rights Program 1997)-in the absence of a systematic
comparative study of reconciliation and peace, this remains merely a hypothesis to
be tested rather than an established fact. If it is true that reconciliation is necessary
under these conditions, we are likely talking about a very small percentage of
internal conflicts in the world given that most civil wars end through the outright
victory of one side over the other, rather than through negotiated settlement
(Walter 1997:335). In the remaining majority of cases, it would seem that no correlation exists between national reconciliation and the likelihood of the resumption
of war. In nearly all these cases national reconciliation was rarely pursued. If the
data confirm this observation, it would greatly limit the prescriptive claims of truthtelling advocates.
Even if we were able to establish a compelling link between reconciliation and
peace, does it necessarily follow that reconciliation requires truth-telling (Assumption 4)? This is a core assumption of truth-telling claims. Determining the assumption's validity requires a clear definition of "reconciliation." But whether we accept
a limited definition ("nonlethal coexistence") or a more expansive one ("intergroup
harmony and cooperation"), the empirical record is inconclusive. Coexistence occurs in many postconflict states in which truth-telling has not taken place as well as
in those in which it has. As noted above, cases of truth-telling in Central America
and South Africa have not necessarily resulted in "intergroup harmony and
cooperation." Given this reality, truth-telling advocates (see, for example, Kaye
1997; Kemali 2001) will often hedge and qualify their claims. They will say that
truth-telling promotes reconciliation or has "put the country on the road" to
6At least one study of reconciliation and interstate war (Brecke and Long 1999) has found no clear relationship
at all.
7A dissenting and methodologically sensitive view can be found in Gibson (2003).

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reconciliation. Yet, it is unclear how such a proposition can be measured. It is


problematic enough to operationalize reconciliation, let alone progress toward it.
Furthermore, there is no inherently logical reason why collective forgetting of
painful, divisive episodes from the past might not be more conducive to harmony
and cooperation than truth-telling. Truth-telling advocates generally reject official
or unofficial "amnesia," saying that "it is not possible to forget the past and start
completely fresh as if nothing had happened. ... The past must be addressed in
order to reach the future" (Bloomfield 2003a: 15). In short, "amnesia is the enemy
of reconciliation" (Huyse 2003:30). But the exact opposite lesson was learned most
notably from post-Franco Spain and Mozambique, among others. Even though
some scholars (for example, Freeman and Hayner 2003:122-123) may argue that
the ultimate consequence of such forgetting is yet to be known, little evidence
suggests that intergroup harmony and cooperation is necessarily required to prevent the resumption of civil war. So even if truth-telling were necessary for reconciliation, it is not clear that truth-telling is necessary for peace. In short, we are
left with another untested hypothesis.
Similar problems affect another of the central psychological assumptions of the
postconflict justice and transitional justice literatures: "There can be no peace
without justice" (Assumption5). There are several problems with this assumption.
First, as with reconciliation, individual conceptions of "justice" differ from person
to person, place to place, and time to time. No one definition is universally accepted. In Rwanda, for example, international human rights organizations have
condemned Rwandan authorities for abandoning the Western judicial approach to
the punishment of war crimes in favor of an indigenous system of community
tribunals, even though the latter process is widely supported by the population. In
South Africa, many blacks considered the amnesty provision of the TRC, in which
the accused exchanged criminal prosecution for public confession of their crimes,
to be sufficient justice. Others who favored a more retributive approach condemned the process as unjust. Without a clear, consistent definition, it is impossible
to measure and reach general conclusions about the effect of justice on peace.
This dilemma is evident from existing empirical studies. The literature tends to
focus on a handful of recent cases in which postconflict justice has been pursued in
various ways: El Salvador, Guatemala, Rwanda, South Africa, and the former Yugoslavia, for example. However, little agreement exists as to whether justice has or
has not been realized in these cases. Hence, determining its effects on peace is
problematic. Further, in each of these cases the dependent variable (peace) does not
vary. Justice is pursued in various forms and with varying degrees of success, yet
peace exists in all of the cases: war has not resumed and the probability of war
resuming is relatively low. Peace may be more tenuous in some cases than in others
(Paris 1997, 2001), but no obvious connection seems to exist between the nature or
degree ofjustice and the relative strength of the peace. Guatemala, El Salvador, and
South Africa pursued truth commissions with amnesties; Rwanda and Yugoslavia
pursued trials without amnesties. Even though, in almost all these cases, some
groups have claimed that they have been denied justice, the likelihood that war will
resume remains very low in all of them.
Some advocates, however, claim that it is not necessarily achieving justice that is
critical to peace, but pursuing justice (through formal truth-telling mechanisms).
Hayner (1994:607) refers to this as "acknowledgingthe truth, rather than finding the
truth." Even that formulation remains problematic. If, in fact, a justice process is
necessary for peace, then how do we explain the numerous cases in which peace has
been consolidated but no justice of any kind was pursued? Post-Franco Spain (but
see Rigby 2001), post-Ta'if Lebanon, Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia (but on
these latter two, see Hayner 2001) serve as a few notable examples of peace being
achieved without the pursuit of justice. History is replete with others; indeed the
vast majority of post-civil war cases likely fit this description.

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Part of the logic of Assumption 5 is thatjustice through truth-telling dampens the


retributive urges of victims. Justice pursued through truth-telling mechanisms removes any need to pursue vigilante justice. It removes incentives for revenge,
thereby breaking the cycle of violence and preventing the resumption of war. The
empirical support for this claim, however, is inconclusive. Jonathan Tepperman
(2002:142), for example, suggests that "the fact that there have been no revenge
killings in [South Africa] since the TRC started its work almost certainly says something about what kind of impact the commission has had." Perhaps it says something, but what that is remains unclear. Other factors almost certainly account for
this outcome. Indeed, such claims are almost never accompanied by a counterfactual analysis-what would likely have happened in the absence of a TRC in
South Africa?-or systematic testing of competing hypotheses. Even though Freeman and Hayner (2003:138) acknowledge some successes of the truth commissions-including the issuing of reparations in Chile, judicial reforms in El Salvador,
and the discrediting of apartheid in South Africa-the real question is whether
these outcomes would have reasonably occurred in the absence of a truth commission. Without clear evidence establishing a link between truth-telling and revenge killings, this is merely a plausible hypothesis based on a simple correlation.
Moreover, this positive correlation does not seem to hold true in other cases in
which we would most expect to see it. Despite an active and well-functioning retributive justice system in the form of the ICTY, Kosovar Albanians carried out
revenge killings against Serbs in the aftermath of the NATO intervention in 1999
(Human Rights Watch 1999a; International Crisis Group 1999; Daalder and
O'Hanlon 2000:177, 196). Similarly, despite the establishment of the ICTR in late1994, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army continued to carry out violent reprisals
against Hutus (Amnesty International 1996a, 1996b). Although these are just two
examples, they are important cases often cited by proponents (see, for instance,
Akhavan 2001:23) as success stories of international criminal law and truth-telling.
Given these problems, then, the question remains open as to the relative importance of justice in the peacebuilding process.
Another important truth-telling claim is closely related: justice through truthtelling dampens retributive urges for communal violence by focusing on individual
rather than collective guilt. As Kritz (1999:169) argues, justice through truth-telling
"rejects the dangerous culture of collective guilt and retribution that often produces further cycles of resentment and violence." But this argument assumes not
only that individual guilt is the logical outcome of truth-telling exercises (Assumption
6), but also that collective guilt is always dangerous and undesirable (Assumption7).
Neither is necessarily true. Though the ICTY has for more than a decade investigated and prosecuted war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, simply no evidence
indicates that individual Bosnians, Croats, or Serbs blame individuals for crimes
committed against them rather than "Bosnian Muslims," "Croats," or "Serbs." Nor
is this the case in Rwanda. Indeed, the most often cited case in this regard-Nuremberg-provides the opposite lesson. Most of the world and the Germans
themselves still hold "Germans" collectively guilty for the crimes of World War II,
not individual Nazis (Buruma 1994; Ignatieff 1996:117). Far from being dangerous, it has led the German people to confront their own culpability and to make
amends to victims. It is far easier for societies to shirk their collective responsibilities
if they have individual scapegoats.
One other logical problem limits these claims about retribution. Cases such as
Kosovo and Rwanda reveal that revenge attacks are most common and most
dangerous (that is, they most threaten the integrity of a negotiated settlement)
in the immediate aftermath of war (see, for example, Amnesty International
1994; Human Rights Watch 1995, 1999b). Hence it is in the short term
that efforts to mitigate violent reprisals are most needed. However, it is precisely
during this time that truth-telling is least likely to take place. Formal truth-telling

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institutions take a good deal of time to establish. Once they are up and running,
however, the threat of revenge killings is actually less acute, given that the thirst for
revenge generally dies down over time.8 Justice through truth-telling, as a result, is
limited in addressing revenge killings. Can justice ever dampen vigilantism? Perhaps under some circumstances, for example, when group hatred and animosity
have not dissipated over time. But in the absence of compelling empirical support,
the claim's general validity remains suspect.
None of this is to say that some victims of war crimes do not feel a real need for
justice and that punishing war criminals would not make some feel better. The
pursuit of justice is a worthy endeavor, and it should be attempted whenever possible. But it remains to be fully demonstrated that successful peacebuilding requires
it. Indeed, a rigorous, systematic study by Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri (2003/
04) found little support for this claim.
The final psychological assumption is a core assumption about the causes of war
upon which truth-telling claims rest. If truth-telling promotes peace, then forgetting, suppressing, or distorting the past promotes war (Assumption8). Is this true? A
growing body of theoretical work on ethnic and nationalist conflict lends some
support to this claim. The works most notably of Stephen Van Evera (1994), Michael Brown (1996, 2001), Stuart Kaufman (2001), and Daniel Byman (2002) make
a convincing case that in certain situations chauvinist, hegemonic nationalist ideologies, which are often based on historical distortions and denials of past crimes,
can be used by political entrepreneurs to incite violence. However, our theorizing
about the dangers of historical mythmaking is still evolving. We have yet fully to
understand the mechanisms and conditions under which mythmaking leads to
violence, and the evidence remains scattered and limited to only a few prominent
cases. For example, Van Evera (1994) focuses primarily on Wilhelmine Germany
and Imperial Japan, Kaufman (2001) on the former Yugoslavia and post-Soviet
Caucasus, and the author (Mendeloff 2001) on Russia and the Baltic States. Furthermore, although these works in part counsel truth-telling, they call primarily for
historical revision and educational reform, not the formal truth-telling mechanisms
that are the focus of the peacebuilding literature. Thus, even though mythmaking may indeed be a potential cause of renewed violence in postconflict
societies, formal truth-telling may not necessarily be the only or the best way to
address the problem.
Finally, even proponents of the mythmaking hypothesis do not claim that
it has universal explanatory or predictive power. The hypothesis still remains one
of a number of potential causes of internal conflicts (Byman and Van Evera 1998;
Brown 2001). Thus, truth-telling remedies are not always relevant or necessary.
Many postconflict states have carried out conscious policies of forgetting or suppressing the past and have not risked relapse into civil war: post-civil war Russia,
post-civil war China, and others mentioned above (Spain, Lebanon, Namibia,
Mozambique, and Cambodia).
Identity Assumptions. Many truth-telling claims also rest on the validity of factual
and theoretical assumptions about the nature of national and cultural identity.
These arguments are essentially about the manipulation of historical beliefs and
national and cultural identity. Table 2 identifies four assumptions in particular as
8In fact, even claims by advocates of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that it will speed up the process of
punishment seem overstated and hardly undermine the larger argument. Prosecution under the ICC does not
occur quickly. It is a court of last resort, and thus must wait until domestic courts have taken action and proved
wanting, or failed to take action at all, before stepping in. Further, there is no reason to believe that the trial process
will occur any more quickly than it currently does under ad hoc tribunals. Therefore, the ICC may speed up the
process, but only relatively, and certainly will not act quickly enough to offset the short-term problem of revenge
killings.

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central to the logic of truth-telling claims; these are numbered 9 through 12 in the
table.
Because many truth-telling arguments are essentially about reconciliation, they
assume that divided war-torn societies are better off staying together rather than
separating (Assumption9). Sarkin (1999:821), for example, concludes that Rwanda's
"history shows that ethnic violence will continue unless serious steps are taken to
unite the nation." Is unity in fact preferable to separation? Little empirical or
theoretical agreement exists on this point. In some cases working to foster reconciliation is a wise policy (assuming that reconciliation is in fact peace-promoting).
But this hardly means that efforts to keep divided societies together in all circumstances are always preferable. Indeed, as Herbert and Kanya Adam (2001:47) have
observed, "where ethno-nationalist groups do not support common nationbuilding
(the Balkans, Israel, Palestine) and where mutual atrocities engender divided
memories, separation in independent or semi-autonomous polities would seem the
only feasible solution." The benefits of reconciliation or separation, either through
partition or federal autonomy, depend on the roots of the conflict, the nature of the
war, particular war aims, and the geographic concentration of groups. A strong case
can be made for separation after conflicts in which atrocities were carried out along
largely racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural lines. Chaim Kaufmann (1996, 1999) has
argued persuasively that the chances of violence resuming after such conflicts is
much greater if those societies are kept together, or separated incompletely, than if
they are effectively partitioned. Ultimately, though, little consensus has formed
around any one set of best strategies for ethnic conflict management. Partition,
power-sharing, and federalism all have their proponents and detractors. For an
excellent analysis of the various possible strategies, see Byman (2002); on partition,
see Kaufmann (1996, 1999), Byman (1997), Kumar (1997), Sambanis (2000), and
Downes (2001); on power-sharing, see Horowitz (1990), Lijphart (1990), McCrae
(1990), and Sisk (1996); and on federalism, see Lapidoth (1996) and Burmeo
(2002). If conflict prevention is the goal, then we must consider the full range
of options and not assume that keeping divided societies together is the best
approach.
Even if unification were preferable to separation, unity is not always feasible.
Many truth-telling arguments assume that creating new, shared identities is beneficial for long-term peace (Assumption10) and that doing so is relatively easy-or
easier than alternatives such as partition (Assumption11). Yet, it is extremely hard to
manipulate existing identities in the aftermath of massive violence and brutality, let
alone create entirely new ones. Identity changes of this sort generally occur
through the assimilation of minority groups who adopt the identity of the majority
rather than through the creation of a new shared identity. Assimilating groups into
a new national identity is not impossible, but the conditions for it to succeed are
rare (Byman 2000, 2002:100-124). It requires at a minimum a single strong group
willing to forge that new identity and to use coercion and bribery to bring others
along. Destroying existing identities and building new ones is almost always a
process imposed rather than negotiated. Thus, it is more likely to succeed in cases
in which civil war ended with decisive victory and in which the balance of power has
shifted decisively in favor of one side. While most civil wars end in this way, and
these are also the cases in which the fighting is least likely to resume (Wagner
1993:257-263). The danger of states relapsing into civil war is most common following negotiated settlements, which are often the result of a stalemated conflict in
which the balance of power is fairly equal. Yet, in these conditions identity manipulation is likely to flounder. Most important, forging new identities almost always
fails when groups share a history of substantial intercommunal violence (Byman
2002:220-221). Paradoxically, it is precisely in these conflicts in which truth-telling
is believed to be most needed. Thus, in those cases in which identity manipulation
may be most desired (in the aftermath of negotiated settlements), it is actually

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hardest to achieve. And in those cases in which it is most difficult to achieve (after
intercommunal violence), truth-telling may be most needed.
Moreover, manipulating identities may also be a dangerous undertaking. It can
generate enormous popular resentment and further harden and radicalize communal identities. Most important, manipulating identities can threaten ethnic elites
who are much more willing to fight than to give up power (Byman 2000). Thus,
even if it eventually results in peace, the risks of violence over the generations that it
takes to implement the change in identities can be great. Finally, because the process of identity manipulation takes decades, it provides few benefits in the short term
(Byman 2000, 2002). Yet, it is precisely the peace that is consolidated in the immediate aftermath of war that is the best predictor of overall long-term success
(Stedman 2002).
Even if new shared identities could be easily forged, is a common, shared identity
necessarily peace-promoting (Assumption10)? Many groups who have distinct identities coexist, cooperate, work, and live together all over the world. No logical
reason exists that peace requires a shared identity. More important is probably the
nature of any mutual identities (are they civic or ethnic identities; hegemonic or
tolerant?) and the content of the historical myths and ideas that groups purvey (are
they chauvinist and other-denigrating; do they lie about and distort their own past
crimes; do they exaggerate their own persecution and glorify their own victimization?) (Van Evera 1994; Byman and Van Evera 1998). These are likely to be more
powerful than the shared nature of the identities.
Indeed, a new shared identity may or may not be a better or more benign
identity. It is assumed that truth-telling will somehow destroy old, chauvinist, culturally hegemonic, exclusionist identities and inexorably lead to a new civic national
identity that values diversity, inclusiveness, and democracy. But civic nationalism is,
in fact, relatively rare in the world today and rarely flourishes in the aftermath of
violent intercommunal conflict (Snyder 2000).
If it could be established that divided societies are better off remaining integrated
and that shared identities are, in reality, feasible and beneficial, should we believe
that "truth" is the best glue to hold those societies together? This assumption
(Assumption12) underlies truth-telling claims. Yet, no inherently logical reason exists to believe that truth should be more powerful than lies or a new set of myths
based on the intentional distortion of the past. Indeed, mythmaking based on
historical distortion and omission is the most common basis for national identity. In
divided societies emerging from violent conflict, the truth can be a source of danger.
Often legitimate truths can become fodder for dangerous hypernationalism, especially for the victims of crimes. Some of the most dangerous forms of nationalist
ideas are self-victimization myths (Van Evera 1994; Kiss 2000:72; Mendeloff 2001).
Even if based on truth, they can be an excuse for cruelty, maltreatment, and violence that can lead to war. As Charles Maier (1993:136) writes, "collective memories tend to focus not on the long history of an ethnic people but on their most
painful incidents of victimization." Armed with the knowledge of the genocide
committed against them, is it really surprising that Tutsi have carried out bloody
reprisals against Hutus in Rwanda? Are we to believe that more truth, rather than
less, will moderate Tutsi animosity? Some societies that have chosen amnesia rather
than truth-seeking in the aftermath of violent conflict have avoided the kind of
bloodletting that has wracked Rwanda.
This is not to say, however, that truth cannot serve as the basis of national identity.
Current German national identity is, in fact, based on a good deal of unadulterated,
nonwhitewashed, non-self-glorifying historical truth. But Germany seems to be an
exception. Nor is this to say that amnesia is always bad. German rightists and some
of the victims of the Allied firebombing of German cities during World War II may
consider it shameful that German society has essentially ignored their suffering and
the millions of innocent German civilians who died. But most of us would have little

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Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling,and Postconflict Peacebuilding

problem with the fact that German history has focused on their own crimes rather
than the conduct of the allies during the war. As residents of the allies who participated in these events, we do not view this bit of amnesia as a bad thing.
What is important is not so much truth versus lies, but the purpose to which
those ideas are put. Lies, distortions, or amnesia in the service of tolerant, non-selfglorifying, nonvictimizing national identities are preferable to truths that can fuel
victimization myths, scapegoating, and intolerance. The truth-telling literature
needs to focus more on the nature of the ideas that are involved in the truth-telling
and the context of the truth-telling rather than the truth-telling itself.
Ultimately, though, identity manipulation is hard because, to have a major impact, it has to affect most if not all of collective society. The international IDEA
handbook, for example, acknowledges that the process of reconciliation (a vital
component of which is "a process of acknowledging, remembering, and learning
from the past") is "a society-wide, long-term process of deep change" (Bloomfield
2003a: 14). But not only is identity change through truth-telling a Sisyphusian task,
such identity change may also be unnecessary. It remains an open question whether
preventing the resumption of violent conflict in war-torn societies requires such
society-wide solutions. Do all members of society need to change their beliefs or just
a small number of those members? After all, decisions for war and peace are ultimately made by small groups of individuals. Thus, some may argue that it is only
the actions of those few responsible individuals who need to be restrained or
moderated. The goal of many truth-tellers, however, is to change the collective
beliefs of all society. Such activity may be misguided.9
Institutional

and Normative

Assumptions.

The final set of assumptions

that un-

derlie truth-telling claims found in Table 2 are those related to the creation and
manipulation of new social and political institutions and norms. These five assumptions focus on the relationship between truth-telling and democracy, the historical record, and respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Those advocating truth-telling claims are on solid ground in assuming the domestic peacefulness of democracies (Assumption13). Democracies are, in fact, much
less likely to suffer civil wars than nondemocracies (Gleditsch 1999; Hegre
et al. 2001). The reasons offered are numerous, but they generally have to do with
norms and institutions that promote nonviolent conflict resolution. The problem
here, however, is not with the validity of the assumption but rather with the relationship between truth-telling and democratization.
First, the ultimate goal of peacebuilding is war prevention, not democracy. Yet,
many truth-telling advocates conflate the two or focus exclusively, either implicitly
or explicitly, on promoting democracy. The vast majority of the undemocratic
world, however, is at peace. Even though democracy is a laudable goal and may
prevent the resumption of civil war in postconflict societies, it is not the exclusive
guarantor of peace. It is quite possible to achieve peace in war-torn societies without
democracy.
Second, although democracy may be preferable as a peacebuilding strategy, it is
not necessarily the easiest or safest path to peace. Those advocating truth-telling
claims tend to overlook this possibility. Indeed, important caveats must be noted in
relation to the "civil-democratic peace thesis" that the truth-seeking literature
elides. Truth-telling claims refer to "democracy" and "democratic institutions" in a
loose, undifferentiated way, without noting the qualitative differences between democracies with regard to civil peace. Democratic institutions are no guarantee of
peace and stability. Even though the relationship between levels of democracy and
interstate peace is fairly robust (that is, even very weak democracies are less likely to
'The author thanks Benjamin Valentino for discussions on this point.

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373

go to war with other democracies), this is not true with regard to civil war. Strong
liberal democracies do not suffer civil wars; weak illiberal proto-democracies, and
nondemocracies do (Henderson and Singer 2000; Hegre et al. 2001). It is relatively
easy to establish a weak democracy but a lot harder to develop a robust liberal
democracy that will last. Indeed, democratization is fraught with dangers for wartorn states. States that jump into the democratization process, particularly by holding elections as early as possible, are much more likely to relapse into civil war
(Snyder 2000; Lyons 2002).
Third, even if we assume that democracy is the best, easiest, and safest peacebuilding strategy, is truth-seeking helpful in bringing it about? Many truth-telling
claims include the assumption that truth-seeking promotes democracy (Assumption
14). The International IDEA, for example, argues that creating "a culture of democracy" and "peaceful coexistence" in war-torn societies requires truth-telling
(Huyse 2003:24). Yet, the empirical support for this assumption is mixed. Given
that democracy has emerged in countries where truth-telling was deliberately
avoided raises the question of the relative importance of truth-telling for developing democratic institutions. Indeed, it is far more plausible that the causal arrows
linking truth-telling to democracy actually run in the opposite direction: truthtelling may be far more likely a consequence of democratic development, than a
result of it.
Moreover, promoting truth in certain democratizing states can actually be quite
dangerous. If democratic institutions are weak and developing, especially in wartorn ethnically divided societies, political entrepreneurs have great incentives to use
nascent democratic institutions--free assembly, free press, electoral competition-to foster extremism and ethnic hatred in a bid for power (Snyder 2000;
Kaufman 2001). Truth-seekers claim that public truth-telling mechanisms can
counter those ethnic appeals. But truth is just as likely to inflame passions, instill
resentment, and provide grievances to be exploited as it is to moderate those
appeals (Petersen 2002).
Still, it is argued, truth-telling strengthens democratic institutions by shaming
and discrediting undemocratic leaders. Akhavan (2001), for example, argues that
truth-telling through the ICTY led directly to the discrediting and ostracizing
of extremist political elites: Milosevic in Serbia, Karadicz and Mladic in Bosnia.
Tepperman (2002:141) declares that thanks to the TRC, "De Klerk's political career
has been ruined and he will never return to office." But in the absence of systematic
examination of competing explanations and counterfactual analysis, such claims are
dubious. Milosevic's fall from power might perhaps be more readily explained by
factors that had little to do with his indictment. Most Serbs, for example, rejected-and still reject-the authority of the ICTY, seeing it as anti-Serb and a politically motivated, victor's justice (even Akhavan 2001:16 acknowledges this fact).
Indeed, the leader of the Serb opposition movement against Milosevic, Vojislav
Kostunica, fiercely opposed extraditing Milosevic to the Hague. Serbs, it has been
argued, turned on Milosevic because of his corruption and the failed prosecution of
four bloody and costly wars that bankrupted the country and decimated the male
population. In other words, he was discredited and ostracized not for his war
crimes, but for losing Serbia's wars.10 In Bosnia, extremist political entrepreneurs
may have become marginalized not because of indictments against them or other
extremists, but because the United Nations (UN) authority that effectively runs
Bosnia today explicitly bans extremist parties and politicians--a practice that many
Western democracy activists have condemned as fundamentally undemocratic
10Observers (see Erlanger 2003:4) have also noted that it was possibly Western financial pressure on the Serb
government to extradite accused war criminals (the same pressure that led to Milosevic's extradition to The Hague)
that precipitated the assassination of the Serb president in 2003-a move that many saw as a grave blow to nascent
Serbian democracy.

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374

and PostconflictPeacebuilding
Truth-Seeking,
Truth-Telling,

(Chandler 1999). In South Africa, De Klerk's political career seems to have ended
with the fall of apartheid. The TRC, it could be argued, had little if anything to do
with forcing his retirement from public life. In short, the moderating and democracy-promoting influence of truth-telling remains an untested hypothesis.
Fourth, in divided societies emerging from violent conflict, the truth may actually
be divisive and an impediment to cooperation. Truth-tellers claim that exposing
and discussing the past actually helps foster power-sharing arrangements. Truthtelling "closes the book" on a painful past and allows governing elites to focus on
the task of governing, not bickering over history. But this result, of course, rests on
the questionable validity of both the psychological and identity assumptions about
the benefits of truth-telling and the willingness of groups with hardened identities
to merely put such episodes behind them. In fact, some groups may actually support truth-telling because it serves to cast blame and collective guilt on other
groups. Evidence suggests (see Akhavan 2001:22), for example, that Croatians
support the ICTY because it is believed to demonstrate that the Serbs committed
more crimes against the Croatians than the Croatians did against the Serbs. Thus, it
plays directly into the hands of ethnic divisions and hatred.
The assumption that truth-telling closes the book on a painful past also rests on
the validity of one other critical assumption: that truth-telling actually settles the
past and produces a consensus view of history (Assumption15). Advocates of truthtelling through criminal prosecutions claim that trials produce an authoritative
record of the past even though many (Minow 1998:23-51) have raised obvious
doubts about the completeness and impartiality of the trial record. Advocates of
truth-telling by investigative commissions claim that final reports offer a much
more complete and accurate record. But this too is debatable. As Minow (1998:5290) has noted, truth commissions in particular, probably more than trials, are likely
to yield historically inaccurate results because rules of evidence are nonexistent and
testimony is provided without cross-examination. Furthermore, clinical studies
have shown that testimony from traumatized victims may not be entirely accurate
(Minow 1998:60, 128-129). The TRC has been criticized for leaving out many
relevant crimes that did not rise to the level of crimes against humanity, including
other forms of economic and social injustice, and for failing to produce a definitive
historical document of the nature of apartheid (see Kiss 2000:89; Villa-Vicencio
and Verwoerd 2000:279-294, especially 288-289; comments by Mahmood
Mamdani quoted in Rigby 2001:141; Tepperman 2002:141). In short, both trial
transcripts and truth commission reports have strengths and weaknesses, but neither offers a complete, and fully accurate, historical record. That requires many
years of interpretation, synthesis, and debate by professional historians.
Even if truth-telling does not produce a complete, objective historical record of
the past, it may still benefit democratic development in other ways. Truth-telling
claims include the assumption, for example, that truth-seeking helps develop democracy by establishing respect for human rights and the rule of law (Assumption
16). The supporting logic and evidence, however, is ambiguous. There seems to be
little clear relationship between truth-seeking and the human rights records of
postconflict states (Putnam 2002). In the most commonly cited states that have
carried out truth-telling in some form, human rights remain tenuous. South Africa,

Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Rwanda are all plagued by continuing


human rights abuses of varying degrees." In cases in which human rights records
have improved, such as the former Yugoslavia, other factors, such as a robust
"See recent Amnesty International Annual Reports (www.amnesty.org) and US State Department Country
Reports on Human Rights Practices (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt). Interestingly, one of the main advocates of
truth-telling (Sarkin 1998) has written a detailed study of the development of a "human rights culture" in South
Africa without any mention of the TRC as a factor in that development. Of course, this oversight may be because the
author found that a human rights culture had barely begun to develop.

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international monitoring by civil police forces, might more readily account for this
result. In the absence of systematic study of the relationship between human rights
and truth-telling, this assumption remains open to question.
Of course, even a weak human rights record does not necessarily mean that civil
war is likely to resume in postconflict societies. Nonetheless, much of the truthtelling literature assumes that respect for human rights helps promote peace (Assumption 17). To the extent that human rights violations are a manifestation of
systemic discrimination

and repression of minority groups in multiethnic societies,

this assumption has some validity. Discriminatory or repressive state policies may be
a source of grievance that can, under certain conditions, spark violent group rebellion. Therefore, if truth-telling can preempt or deter the violation of human
rights abuses in postwar societies-a hypothesis yet to be fully explicated-then it
may actually help generate peace. Still, the link between human rights and peace is
hardly self-evident. Respect for human rights and the rule of law may be as much a
consequence of peace as a cause of it.
Is There Value In Truth-Telling?
Defenders of truth-telling might argue that this gloomy assessment is both unfair
and premature. Formal truth-telling has been carried out for only a relatively short
time and in many cases truth-telling mechanisms have been imperfect. Truth commissions have been plagued by problems (Hayner 1994, 2001); truth-telling
through trials has really begun to gain legitimacy only in the past decade and more
recently with the creation of the ICC. In short, they might argue that it is too soon
to judge the effectiveness of truth-seeking. However, truth-telling advocates rarely
accept these limitations themselves when pronouncing its utility. If it is too soon to
pass judgment on truth-telling, why is it almost universally endorsed as an effective
and important peacebuilding tool? Further, although it is problematic to pass
judgment on truth-seeking given that the mechanisms remain imperfect, what is
the guarantee that truth-telling mechanisms will be more perfect in the future?
Perhaps the spotty record of truth-seeking is not a passing phase at all; imperfect
truth-telling mechanisms may be the best that we can get. In an imperfect world
with imperfect institutions, we will often have imperfect solutions.
Nonetheless, even perfectly functioning truth-telling mechanisms still rest on a
number of factual and theoretical assumptions that are either dubious or highly
contested. Thus, although we cannot systematically test the impact of truth-telling
now, we can certainly test the validity of the assumptions on which its claims are
based. This essay has raised more questions than answers in that regard. It has not
offered systematic tests of the assumptions but, in the interest of clarifying the
debate, has highlighted the core claims and the assumptions behind them: a necessary first step toward more systematic study of the phenomenon. Truth-telling in
postconflict societies may have some peace-promoting effects, but more systematic
research needs to be done before determining its utility. At a minimum, we must
remain skeptical of truth-telling until its claims are on much firmer ground. We
have a large number of hypotheses, but not many systematic tests.
Given the questions raised here, is there any value in promoting truth-seeking in
postconflict societies? To answer that query we must distinguish when truth-telling
is needed and when it is likely to work. Based on our knowledge of the causes of
war and peace, truth-telling may help shape perceptions of group security over the
long term in certain types of war-torn societies, namely those that are deeply divided along cultural lines. In deeply divided war-torn societies in which groups are
forced to live together, truth-telling may help dampen security fears that could
spark conflict in the event of state weakness. It is in conditions of state weakness
that political entrepreneurs are most likely to appeal to group security or status
concerns through ethnic scapegoating and hate-mongering. A sustained policy of

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376

Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling,and PostconflictPeacebuilding

truth-seeking could make it harder for such political entrepreneurs to use historical
lies and distortions as a basis for these political appeals.
But the utility of truth-telling in these circumstances may still be limited. At least
seven such limitations seem evident. First, it is likely to be most relevant to conflicts
that are characterized by security dilemmas or elite manipulation. In conflicts
marked by predatory motivations or hegemonic ambition, truth-telling is likely to
have little impact. Second, formal truth-telling alone is unlikely to be sufficient. It is
probably more likely to be effective if sustained and institutionalized, such as
through public education (a point acknowledged by the International IDEA, see
Freeman and Hayner 2003). Even though public spectacles may have some role to
play, little evidence supports the conclusion that truth-telling in the form of trials or
truth commissions is likely to create the kind of changes in ideas and beliefs that
could prevent future conflict. Third, truth-telling is likely to take a very long time to
affect change. There is no guarantee that it will have much effect before historical
ideas and beliefs are transformed, which is likely to take generations. Fourth, truthseeking will probably be most effective when states are relatively stable. In other
words, when peace is already present, truth-telling is most likely to change attitudes
and beliefs. Fifth, truth-seeking is also likely to be most effective if states have a
minimum level of democracy to sustain public debate. "Democracy," argues
Ignatieff (1996:119), "is a pre-condition for that free access to historical data and
free debate about its meaning on which the creation of public truth depends." If
institutions are too undemocratic, they cannot allow "countervailing truth to circulate." Jack Snyder (2000) and Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine (1996) have
suggested just such a danger. Sixth, truth-telling is likely to be most effective when
groups want to discuss the past. It cannot be forced. And, seventh, truth-telling
probably needs to be accompanied by an apology or some form of restitution
(Barkan 2000; Freeman and Hayner 2003; Lind 2003), though even that is no
guarantee of effectiveness (Hamber and Wilson 2002).
In short, truth-telling may have value, but it is likely limited. Ultimately, though,
the answer to the questions raised here will have to wait until more research is
done. The first place to start is with designing studies that can systematically test the
truth-telling claims and their assumptions outlined here. Future research needs to
focus more directly on the core peacebuilding dilemma-how to prevent the resumption of war in postconflict societies. What is needed is greater clarity in thinking about how truth-telling prevents the recurrence of civil war, how important it is
relative to other factors and peacebuilding strategies, and the conditions under
which it is likely to prove helpful, harmful, or irrelevant. Thus far, none of these
questions has been satisfactorily answered.

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