The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in 2020 sparked a one-off protest movement against racial justice in the United States. Black Lives Matter protesters called for justice in a variety of forms: recognition of racist violence, accountability to perpetrators, redress for victims, creation of memorials and introduction of legal reforms.
The combination of these measures – truth-finding, criminal justice, redress, memorial service, and reform – is known internationally as transitional justice and has a long and successful history outside the United States. Transitional justice has been used in many countries to address human rights abuses and other abuses, especially after authoritarian rule and armed conflict. But it is a model that can be used wherever violence and injustice have not been recognized and remedied.
Transitional justice begins with the recognition of previous abuses by state and non-state actors. The vehicle for this is usually a truth commission – an official investigation separate from the criminal justice system that determines who, what, where, when, how, and why abuses are committed. The idea behind the commissions is that by clarifying the truth, countries can begin to repair past damage through transformative measures such as reparations and institutional reforms.
Truth commissions have been used in a variety of contexts for decades. Well-known examples are the Argentine National Commission for Enforced Disappearances, set up in 1983 after the military dictatorship, and the famous South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1995 after apartheid. Other important examples include the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the forced assimilation of indigenous children through the Indian school system and the 2013 Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission on Authoritarianism and Corruption in Government.
Based on our expertise in transitional justice (one of us is a practitioner and the other is an academic), we believe that truth commissions can help the United States deal with structural racism and historical injustice in three ways. First, truth commissions can provide an authoritative narrative that recognizes the experiences of marginalized communities, especially people of color. Second, truth commissions can promote constructive, forward-looking dialogue about race and racism in the nation. Third, truth commissions can help set an agenda for institutional change.
We have followed the plans of the US transitional justice system over the past few years and monitored its progress. There are many plans, mostly local rather than national. US cities – from Boston to Iowa City to San Francisco – and various states are trying to combat problems such as structural racism and systemic inequality in their communities through truth-finding and truth-finding.
The question is whether this local focus can really help transform the United States and, conversely, whether a national truth commission – as currently proposed – could be successful without the local dimension. We believe that by applying lessons from transitional justice plans abroad and previous attempts in the United States, civil society groups and policymakers can improve the coordination and impact of various racial justice initiatives, particularly truth commissions.
Although there is a growing wave of local truth commissions in the United States, the quest for the truth about racial violence and injustice in US cities and states is not entirely new. For example, in 2004 the Greensboro, North Carolina community came together to investigate the 1979 “Greensboro Massacre” in which neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan killed five work organizers and injured at least ten others. The statements of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators helped the community to engage in overdue introspection and education – and to initiate a process of police reform. Recently, Greensboro City Council also officially apologized to those who survived the massacre.
Similarly, in 2013 the Wabanaki states partnered with the state of Maine to set up the Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began investigating the separation of indigenous children from their families and communities from 1978 onwards. The commission produced a report describing the multiple ways the divisions have torn the fabric of the indigenous community. The process of establishing the truth enabled important reflection, as demonstrated by a wide public debate and an award-winning documentary.
New truth commissions in the United States will deal with various abuses that have occurred over different time periods, but all of them focus on racial violence. For example, a state-level commission set up by the State of Maryland legislature investigates lynchings against racial terror between 1854 and 1933 to create an authoritative record, formally apologize to the victims’ descendants, and facilitate community reconciliation. In turn, the California Truth and Healing Council will study Native American history and government institutions to develop a holistic understanding of Native American damage experiences, all with the aim of healing and reconciling communities.
This move towards the local is remarkable because the truth commissions in most places in the world were national in scope and narrative. You have tried to create new national narratives and authoritative historical reports. Important as the creation of a national narrative is, it can sometimes overshadow local realities. Indeed, one lesson to be learned is that at times national commissions have been unable to fully recognize the community’s experience and address the need for transformation at the local level.
Newer truth-seeking processes around the world have therefore tried to bring the local communities more to the fore. Brazil – which, like the United States, is a large country with a federal system – offers important lessons in this regard. From 2011 to 2014, the National Truth Commission (CNV) investigated state crimes during the country’s military regime, which lasted from 1964 to 1988. At the same time, Brazilian lawmakers, city councils, and even academic institutions created smaller commissions to run alongside the national one. Over time, the CNV concluded cooperation agreements with 29 local commissions. The sub-national and national commissions worked together to produce a rich and detailed national narrative that emerged from working directly with communities affected by violence.
Colombia took a similar approach with the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition Commission created under the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the armed opposition after decades of civil war. The Commission has an explicit mandate to develop an understanding of the local dynamics of the armed conflict. On the Colombian Pacific coast, African descendants and indigenous communities have formed a local commission that works in parallel with and in collaboration with the national commission.
Local commissions in the United States can support and perhaps even announce nationwide initiatives, just like in Brazil and Colombia. There are currently legislative proposals in the US Congress for two national truth commissions that support and could be supported by local mechanisms.
The first bill, proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Cory Booker, would set up a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission to examine the country’s long history of racial abuse, propose new national narratives, and initiate change . The second bill, proposed by Rep. Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren, would create a Truth and Healing Commission to investigate Native American boarding policies to forcibly incorporate Indigenous children into the prevailing culture.
Unfortunately, none of these initiatives have Republican support. However, the spread of local commissions can change this situation. By creating critical mass – and demonstrating objectivity, independence, and diversity – reports and testimonies from local commissions from affected communities could add momentum and legitimacy to nationwide efforts. Hopefully such a powerful choir would resonate with lawmakers, cement support among Democrats, and encourage Republicans to work together at least to some extent.
As in Brazil and Colombia, US local commissions could raise public awareness, foster citizen support, and maintain momentum among leaders. This work would also provide a pool of hundreds of trained lawyers and researchers to any future national commission. The convergence of local and regional truth commissions would also make storytelling easier. Imagine a coordinated system where the commissions engage in constructive dialogue and share information up, down and across the board so that the national narrative reflects the depth of local realities and the local narrative is placed in a broader context .
If the Truth Commissions have succeeded in helping countries overcome the painful legacy of authoritarian rule and civil war, they can help heal the United States plagued by white supremacy, ethnonationalism, and individual and systemic racism. US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should seriously consider the idea of a truth commission – and general transitional justice – and set up one or more commissions through executive action when Congress fails to act. The many successful examples of healing and transformation around the world show that it is an idea whose time has come.