The Fate of Truth Commission Recommendations, by E skaar, E Wiebelhaus-Brahm and J Garcia-Godos

Our Puzzle

What becomes of the recommendations issued by truth commissions in their final reports? For all of the attention lavished on truth commissions by academics, activists, and policymakers, their recommendations receive remarkably little attention. Yet in Bahrain, Wiebelhaus-Brahm (2021) shows how the government clashed with activists and experts about whether the state had complied with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations. In Canada the government reports on its implementation of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action (its term for recommendations), while in Colombia, the Truth Commission established a Follow-up Committee to ensure monitoring and implementation of recommendations presented in the Final report. As can be seen, the stakes are often high when it comes to recommendations.

Early qualitative studies by Ensalaco (1994) and Kaye (1997), for example, provide an overview of recommendations issued by investigative commissions in Latin America and impressionistic conclusions about their implementation status. Other studies focused on specific countries or types of recommendations, such as Popkin (2000) on the implementation of the Salvadoran truth commission’s recommendations and Laplante and Theidon (2007) on recommendations about  victim reparations in Peru. The general impression seemed to be similar to what truth commission expert Priscilla Hayner (2010) concluded a decade ago, namely that, although “[n]o one has yet analysed how many of the thousands of recommendations by truth commissions have been implemented”, the implementation record is generally poor.

Our team thought it would be valuable to probe this claim, wondering whether the picture might be more complex. Perhaps certain types of recommendations were more or less likely to be implemented, or certain domestic and/or international circumstances influenced the prospects for implementing (certain types of) recommendations. There was an absence of systemically collected data that would enable these kinds of comparisons, particularly over a significant period of time. As Mayer-Reickh and Varney (n.d., 51) note, as temporary bodies, “ultimate implementation [of recommendations] depends on a number of factors that are beyond the control of a truth commission such as political will and the level of civil society engagement”.

It is the goal of identifying these factors that motivated our ‘Beyond Words’ project. Specifically, we sought to understand whether and how the characteristics of recommendations and the context in which they are considered influence the likelihood of implementation. We also asked the prior question of what factors influence how the recommendations come to appear in the final report.

Our Methodology

Since the start of the so-called Third Wave of democratization, over fifty countries have established truth commissions to investigate patterns of mass violence and repression (Bakiner 2015). Latin America has been an early and frequent adopter of truth commissions as a form of transitional justice (and even in non-transitional contexts as Wiebelhaus-Brahm (2019) documents). Truth commissions’ public hearings, where conducted, might affect individuals, groups, and/or society writ large. Truth commission reports are often massive, multi-volume tomes that use language that makes them inaccessible to the average person. Recommendations, though, could be the target of civil society activism, and the benchmark against which domestic and international audiences gauge government commitment to addressing the past.

We focus on Latin American truth commissions for several theoretical reasons. First, the region is arguably the incubator of the phenomenon, which was subsequently exported and adapted around the world. Second, Latin American countries’ use of truth commissions spans decades, so we can examine how changing global and regional material and normative contexts affect recommendations. Finally, though one could overstate the similarities, cultural and historical commonalities allow us to discount them as key factors in explaining the formulation and implementation of truth commission recommendations. Our study included 13 commissions in 11 countries, those that had produced a final report with recommendations by 2015, when our data collection began. These countries were (year of delivery of the report in parenthesis):  Argentina (1984), Uruguay (1985, 2003), Chile (1991, 2004/2005), El Salvador (1993), Haiti (1996), Guatemala (1996), Panama (2002), Peru (2003), Paraguay (2008), Ecuador (2010) and Brazil (2014).  

To collect and analyse data we assembled a large, multinational, multidisciplinary research teams. Key partners included Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS, Argentina), Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (IDEHPUCP, Peru), Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales ( FLACSO, Guatemala), and the University of Salamanca (Spain). In addition, several individual researchers covered countries where none of these partners had extensive links.

Our Database

For each truth commission, our team constructed a dataset of the recommendations. We distinguished each distinct actionable item in the final report’s recommendations section, rather than relying upon the commission’s numbering scheme. This gave us a total of 960 actionable items/recommendations, ranging from two (Uruguay 1985) to 202 (Paraguay 2008). First, we systematised recommendations along eight substantive categories: institutional reform, legal reform, constitutional reform, non-repetition measures, criminal prosecution, reparations, follow-up measures, and other measures. We then proceeded to code each actionable item in terms of the characteristics the recommended measure showed: was it general or specific, targeted or universal, backward-looking or forward-looking?

Through interviews with commissioners and staff, memoirs, and commission records, we worked to uncover information about how the list of recommendations was assembled. Then, we sought to determine, what, if any, steps were taken to implement each of the actionable items contained in the final report. To do this, our team looked at government records and media reports; interviews with commissioners and staff, activists, and government officials; and consulted secondary sources.

Our Findings

When it comes to the comparative analysis (presented in Volume I), our project makes several important contributions. While there is significant variation across cases and types of recommendations, we briefly highlight some of the key findings here. First of all, most commissions issue recommendations on a broad range of categories, including the provision of reparations; legal, institutional, and constitutional reform; and calls for criminal accountability for perpetrators. Our database shows that more than three-quarters of all recommendations seek systemic change. Indeed, the vast majority of recommendations promote reform of state institutions, constitutions, and legal frameworks. The chief concern of truth commissions is thus to make recommendations that will strengthen political institutions, encourage democratic practices and prevent the recurrence of human rights violations in the future.

Secondly, our study shows that the recommendations made by Latin American truth commissions have, in fact, frequently been implemented. This is a promising finding given the pessimism that has surrounded the importance and impact of recommendations made by truth commissions. Our analysis thus shows that recommendations matter. However, the degree of implementation ranges from 40 per cent for Guatemala’s truth commission to full implementation for Argentina and for Uruguay. In addition, we find that implementation takes time and that the political context in which the report is launched is critical for the fate of recommendations. Although there are some exceptions, our study finds that implementation is more likely to begin immediately or soon after the government has received the truth commission report. The salience of recommendations is likely to decline over time as other issues supplant the investigation on the political agenda. Furthermore, we find that a small number of specific measures are more likely to be implemented than a long list of broad, sweeping recommendations, and that follow-up bodies are important in promoting implementation.

Our country cases (in Volume II) mostly support the claim that domestic politics is decisive when it comes to implementation. In general, the case studies reveal that governments’ historical connection to past violence, the degree of pressure from victims’ and human rights organizations, and the presence or absence of competing issues on the national agenda are the most important variables in explaining implementation. Each chapter presents a detailed tracing of recommendations’ origins and the degree of progress on implementation. Unfortunately, the detailed findings are beyond the scope of this blog post.

At a more conceptual level, we develop a model that identifies four types of factors influencing the formulation and implementation of truth commission recommendations: temporal factors (time between violations and the truth commission report, world-historical time), characteristics of the truth commission and its recommendations (mandate, subject matter, style), domestic factors (civil society, power of perpetrators, political will, resources, the presence of a follow-up body), and international factors (diffusion of norms, international actors, external funding).

Given the above findings and the model, what can be done to improve the implementation of recommendations? Commissioners only have control over a few but important factors, namely: how many and what kinds of recommendations are produced and included in the final report, and how the recommendations are formulated – not so much in terms of writing style, but more importantly in terms of in-depth, and how well thought-through the recommendations actually are. This particular point has the potential to set a path for implementation – if diffuse and vague, it can well be an opportunity lost. And last but not least, crafting recommendations through broad consultation with stakeholders, state and non-state actors alike, contributes to make recommendations more realistic and increases the odds of implementation.

Looking ahead: applications of the database for future research

We hope that our database will prompt further exploration related to truth commission recommendations, both comparative and country-based analysis. Important work has already produced new insights. For example, Elena Martínez Barahona and Héctor Centeno Martín (2020) find that, contrary to what one might expect, truth commissions have not strongly prioritized security sector reform, perhaps due to the political sensitivity and continued power of military and police in many Latin American contexts. Lisa-Marie Selvik (forthcoming) concludes that Haiti’s truth commission was important in drawing attention to sexual and gender-based violence. In their exploration of temporal dimensions of the data, Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm and Dylan Wright (2021) find evidence that commissioners are routinely influenced by global and regional human rights developments, though this does not necessarily lead to higher implementation rates. They also find that recommendations made by transitional truth commissions are more likely to be implemented than post-transitional commissions (those established five or more years after a transition) (see also Centeno Martín et al. 2022). Statistical research using our qualitative data finds that recommendations for further measures to deal with the past are less likely to be implemented than measures focused on making abuses less likely in the future, suggesting that perpetrators remain wary of anything that sustains attention on the past (Centeno Martín et al. 2022; Wiebelhaus-Brahm et al. forthcoming). In addition, these studies indicate that recommendations for legal reform, which may align with donors’ interest in rule of law, are more likely to be implemented. Further, Héctor Centeno Martín Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm, Ana Belén Nieto-Librero, and Dylan Wright (2022) find that poor countries implement more slowly than their wealthier counterparts, and implementation happens more quickly when the truth commission was created by executive order rather than through legislation or a peace treaty.

Posted by Elin Skaar (Research Professor, Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Bergen, Norway), Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), Jemima Garcia-Godos.