Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Chile

Azadeh Pourzand
December 10th is the international day of Human Rights. It is now many years that Iran is under the list of the countries that constantly violate human rights. Over the past few years, many politicians, thinkers, scholars, activists and etc have tried to find solutions for improving the violation of human rights in Iran.
In here we can read an essay by Azadeh Pourzand, the student of liberal arts and sciences at Oberlin College in Ohio. The essay focuses on the role of truth and reconciliation committees in Chile that were held to prevent further human rights violations and abuses. Having such committees in today’s Iran might help healing the nation’s distress in regards to human rights violations and abuses and might help to improve the condition of human rights in our country. For more information in regards to truth and reconciliation committees, you can go the website of the US Institute of Peace: www.usip.org/library/truth.html

Truth commissions generally establish to provide a report on human right abuses that have occurred in a specific country over a certain period of time during a certain conflict within the nation. Usually truth commissions are supported or founded by governments and international human rights organizations. One of the main tasks of these commissions is to allow the victims, their families and perpetrators to give evidence of human right abuses in official meetings and testimonies held by the members and staff of the commissions. The truth commissions aim for preventing the recurrence of similar human right abuses and to help the nation as a whole to achieve a national reconciliation.
This paper will mainly focus on the nature of truth commissions, their effectiveness in terms of helping the process of national reconciliation, their role in the application of justice and acknowledging the victims and their families. In this paper I will present Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to further study the way this specific truth commission worked, its ability to seek the truth, the obstacles it faced during the process and finally the impacts it had on the society.
Truth commissions are not replacements for prosecution and trials and they are designed to contribute to justice without imparting punishments. Considering the vulnerability of the societies during the transitory periods and the fact that some of the offenders and perpetuators might still be on power, the idea of having trials instead of truth commissions becomes almost impossible. And that’s when “truth commissions become an important alternative only because practical reasons do often interfere with or prevent prosecutions” ( Martha Minow, “The Hope for Healing: What Can Truth Commissions DO?” in Robert I, Rotbert and Dennis Thompson, eds., Truth v, Justice : The Morality of Truth Commissions (Princeton: Princeton University Press , 2000), 237).
Truth commissions are expected to fulfill the initial principles of their foundation. “A truth commission’s goals may be multilayered: to reach out to victims, to document and corroborate cases for a reparations program, to come to firm and irrefutable conclusions on controversial cases and patterns of abuse, to engage the country in a process of national healing, to contribute to justice, to write an accessible public report, to outline reforms, or to give victims a voice. Each of these goals may suggest a different approach to its work” (Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions (NY: RoutledgPress, 2002), 82).
Many Latin American (ex. Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Chile…) countries have experienced severe human rights abuses under the military regimes since 1950s. Truth commissions have played an important role in Latin American countries new democratic regimes. However, the effectiveness of these truth commissions has always been a question for human rights activists and critiques. In Chile, for instance and some of the other Latin American countries “the powerful armed forces have prevented or limited the prosecution of their members for past abuses, even where an explicit amnesty is not in place” (Hayner, 88).
In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew President Allende in a coup d’etat. The coup was extremely violent and Pinochet’s forces were “responsible for 1,200 deaths or disappearances in the first 3 months” (Daren G. Hawkins, International Human Rights and Authoritarian Rule in Chile (NK, University of Nebraska Press, 2002),191). For the next four years Pinochet’s government, led by the intelligence service DINA and then CNI, violently prevented any and all opposition, by the use of harassment, torture, killings, disappearances and exile. “A 1978 law guaranteed amnesty of perpetrators of abuse from 1973 to 1978, and a Supreme Court ruling initially prevented even the judicial investigation of abuses dating from this period”(Hawkins, 192). In response to domestic and international pressure, in 1988, Pinochet agreed that a plebiscite could be held allowing the population to vote on his continued rule. Patricio Aylwin won the general election and became president in 1990. However, Pinochet remained Commander-in-Chief of the Army and so did some of the members of the judiciary branch selected by Pinochet, and the Senate. The amnesty law and the remaining power of the army within the political system made it impossible to successfully prosecute those who were responsible for the violence of the years of coup.
The new democratic government callef a truth and reconciliation committee for deaths and disappearances, excluding all other types of human rights abuses in 1990. “The Rettig commission, as it became known, produced a report in early 1991 that detailed the death and disappearance of 3178, human rights victims but did not assign blame to particular individuals”( Hawkins,192).
On April 25, 1990, the Supreme Decree No.355 was issued by the executive branch to introduce the creation of a truth commission in Chile with the emphasis on national reconciliation and prevention of further mass human rights violations. The decree begins stating that “the moral conscience of the nation demands that the truth about the grave violations of human rights committed in our country between September 11, 1973 and March 11, 1990 be brought to light”(Supreme Decree No. 355, 1990< http://www.usip.org> ( Path: United State Institute of Peace, Truth Commissions Digital Collections: Reports: Chile). 4 October 2002). The Chilean Truth Commission was charged with four tasks. Those tasks where to establish a thorough picture of grave events, to gather evidence that could help identifying the victims’ names and whereabouts, to suggest measures of restorations of people’s good name as it regarded as just and to recommend the legal and administrative measures that should be adopted in order to prevent the recurrence of such human rights violations in the nation( Report of the national Chilean Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, 1991< http://www.usip.org> ( Path: United State Institute of Peace, Truth Commissions Digital Collections: Reports: Chile). 4 October 2002).
The commission that had consisted of certified lawyers and law school graduates was officially allowed to ask for information and testimonies from different sections of the government and the families and relatives of the victims. However, no individual was obliged to testify or provide information. The Chilean police often did not provide sufficient information to the commission saying that the documents related to that period of time were legally burnt. The Chilean army almost always said that the documents the commission is asking for have been burnt in 1989. The Chilean Air force also sometimes did provide information to the commission and there were times when they, too said that the documents were burnt. The Chilean Navy almost always provided thorough information. As it stated, although the commission had the support and sponsorship of the government, the commission constantly faced problems regarding gathering thorough information and having perpetuators testify. Thus, the Commission uncovered very little new information about the fate of the disappeared. This failure was due both to the fact that it was not given access to military records and because it did not have any ability to force the members of the military to provide accurate evidence and information.
Another significant limitation of the Commission’s work was that it only addressed human rights violations resulting in death. Thus while the Commission’s report details the cases of 2,115 individuals killed by government forces and 164 victims of left-wing violence, and names each victim, it does not provide any information about the estimated 200,000 victims of gross human rights violations and these individuals were not given the opportunity to provide testimony to the Commission. Nevertheless the report provided a general overview of the violence during the Pinochet regime, as well as an outline containing precise details of the ways that torture was used and the methods employed.
The Chilean Truth Commission continued to work to provide a reliable picture of the truth and to help the process of national reconciliation. After one hundred working sessions, the Chilean Commission presented the report of its work to President Patricio Aylwin. President Alywin apologized to the victims and their families on behalf of the state. He also sent a letter to each family apologizing for the crimes of the past, along with a copy of the Commission’s report (Strategic Choices in the Design of the Truth Commissions: Chile, < http://www.truthcommission.org> (path: truth Commission Background Cases) 2001-2002).
“Despite the amnesty, the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation was required to send to the courts any information that it uncovered involving a crime”( Hayner, 97) . After the commission released its report, Aylwin instructed the courts not to apply the amnesty law before a human rights violation case related to the time period stated in the amnesty law (1973-1978) has been fully investigated. This is known as ‘Aylwin Doctrine’. This doctrine has helped some of the families to be able to identify the name and face of the perpetuators in courts. The Supreme Court announced the Chilean Amnesty law for the cases of disappearances in 1999. “In the wake of the Pinochet arrest in London in late 1998, a significant number of cases pertaining to severe abuses under the military regime began to move forward in Chilean courts”( Hayner, 98).
The presentation of the Chilean Truth Commission had a series of reactions as a consequence. For instance, the Chilean Military would say that such truth seeking and commission will destabilize the nation. However, despite such reactions no one would deny the validity of the information being presented by the Truth Commission. Three assassinations by leftist groups in the three weeks following the release of the report and shifted the focus of the public on the violence by the left. Nevertheless, families of the disappeared continued to bring those responsible for the death of their family members to justice.
The report presented by the Chilean Truth Commission had a significant impact on having the state provide benefits and facilities to support the families and children of the victims of human rights violations during the rule of the military. These facilities included legal, medical, educational and financial supports provided by the government. “A law promulgated in 1992 provided significant financial support to the family of all victims named in the report. A fund has also been created for children of the disappeared to support their continuing education. The Ministry of Health also established teams in cities around the country offering general medical and mental health care to victim’s families”( Strategic Choices in the Design of the Truth Commissions: Chile, < http://www.truthcommission.org> (path: truth Commission Background Cases) 2001-2002).
Even though the Chilean Truth Commission had very limited freedom to further precede the commission’s findings, it was eventually able to effectively provide a state-sponsored acknowledgement of truth and justice. As it was mentioned earlier, the commission was also able to strengthen the state support for the survivals. In addition, the fact that the commission was able to submit the information on the cases it was investigating to the court was a significant step for the ongoing individual trials that have been and are still being held for the cases of disappearances and deaths. It’s true that the idea of having a truth commission is not the most ideal option for bringing the perpetuators to justice and to heal the pain of the families of the victims. However, I think that in situations where the society and political system are still unprepared for having trials for perpetuators, establishing truth commissions is a reasonable and helpful alternative to acknowledge those who suffered ,to provide information to the judiciary branch regardless of the ability of the judicial system to hold trials right away and to help the reconciliation of the nation in its transitory stage after having experienced the violent and dreadful years of the military rule.