The task of a truth commission

Of the many campaign pledges that President Noynoy affirmed in his inaugural speech, the formation of a truth commission to be headed by former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. is likely to be the most challenging. Not so much because of Davide’s perceived closeness to the principal object of the commission’s investigation—the regime of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—but because of the very problematic nature of a truth commission.

The functions of a “truth commission” are not as simple as they seem. Closure, its supposed objective, comes in various forms. Sometimes the mere act of knowing is enough to prod someone to move on. But, when it is an entire society’s truths that are being pursued, closure is usually deemed achieved only when truths result in justice. Only then can forgiveness and reconciliation follow.

There are immediate complications here. The search for facts and the administration of justice are institutional functions. They are standard procedures that fall within a society’s legal system. A truth commission, in contrast, is a non-permanent parallel body created for special purposes that, for a host of reasons, cannot be adequately served by existing institutions. Depending on how it defines its work, such a commission runs the risk of becoming either a redundant structure without any substantive powers, or a mechanism for dispensing what is frowned upon as “victor’s justice.”

Truth commissions typically arise in societies that have just gone through a wrenching upheaval or transition. They are either formed by government or by civil society, or by a combination of state and civil society actors. Their objectives vary according to the particular context from which they emerge. “Truth” is equated with facts about various forms of wrongdoing committed by past regimes and sometimes by non-state groups. But it is also used as a generic term for a cluster of other value-laden objectives. These objectives may include the following: justice—the jailing of political criminals and corrupt rulers, the end of impunity, the return of stolen wealth, compensation for victims or their restoration, etc.—acknowledgement of guilt, forgiveness (e.g., amnesty) and reconciliation.

The last one, in particular—reconciliation—is never accomplished overnight. The government may try to hasten the healing of wounds and the return of peace by creating programs, memorials and occasions, but it cannot do very much more. Reconciliation is a goal that ultimately succeeds only when it is resonated in every sphere or sector of society.

What exactly is the scope of the 2010 Truth Commission’s mandate? A chair has been appointed but the executive order creating the commission itself has not been issued. One can understand why. Defining the objectdomain of the commission is a very complex task. Consider the options: Will it be limited to gathering facts about the corruption scandals that plagued the Arroyo regime, or will its investigations include the extrajudicial killings and disappearances of journalists and political activists? Will it confine its work to high-profile cases or will it take on all cases brought before it? Will it focus mainly on wrongdoings committed by the Arroyo regime, or will it look as well into unresolved issues under all past regimes? The awaited executive order should put these questions to rest.

But this much we can glean from early pronouncements. One, the commission will not draw its mandate from an act of Congress but from an order of the President. Therefore it cannot assume powers that the President himself does not possess or cannot grant under the law. Two, it is a fact-finding and recommendatory body. It can cause the filing of charges but it will rely on the existing agencies to prosecute. Three, the commission will focus on the big corruption cases against the Arroyo regime, rather than on its human rights violations. Four, closure may come in the form of a conclusion about what happened, the identification of those who are culpable, and the filing of appropriate charges against them. But since an admission of guilt by the principal actors is not expected, there will be no offer of amnesty or reconciliation. Finally, if it feels so minded, the commission may arrive at a theory of the roots of bad governance and abuse of power, describing the conditions that made it possible for a president to undermine the nation’s basic institutions, and putting forth recommendations on how these may be cured.

The most famous truth commission, widely held to be the template for truth commissions everywhere, was post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It drew global attention as much for the daunting task it set for itself—the reconciliation and healing of a society riven by decades of racial segregation and oppression—as for the charisma and moral leadership of its creator President Nelson Mandela and its chair, Bishop Desmond Tutu. Yet, for all the support and goodwill it earned, public opinion was divided on whether the commission was able to fulfill its mission. Where it succeeded in paving the way for reconciliation, it was criticized for allowing criminals to go unpunished.

The truth commission that President Noynoy has in mind seems more modest. Its task is to find the remaining missing pieces of a puzzle that everyone already knows. It is not reconciliation that the Filipino public seeks so much as justice. And that, unfortunately, is not within the powers of the commission to grant.