NEW YORK – When Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka earlier this month, he used the occasion to urge its leaders to include “the pursuit of truth” in the process of healing the scarred and divided country. Sri Lanka is still reeling from a 25-year civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009, after up to 100,000 people had been killed – many of them by the government. The pursuit of truth is important, Francis said, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing, and unity.”
Francis was no doubt informed by the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in his native Argentina. Immediately upon taking office in 1983, after years of military rule, the newly elected civilian president, Raúl Alfonsín, established the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons and charged it with investigating the human-rights violations carried out by previous regimes. This body, which became known as a “truth commission,” was the forerunner of similar efforts in more than 40 countries around the world. Sri Lanka would be wise to heed the Pope’s advice and follow Argentina’s example.
Many human-rights advocates believe that large-scale abuses – like the killings of an enormous number of noncombatants that took place in Sri Lanka – can be addressed only through criminal prosecution of those with the highest level of responsibility. And yet, in places where the crimes have not been acknowledged, many would argue that it is even more important to put in place a process to establish exactly what happened.
Truth commissions provide official acknowledgment of official wrongdoing, which can mean a lot to victims and their survivors. They also make it possible to arrange reparations, such as financial compensation, to families left destitute by the loss of breadwinners. They stigmatize perpetrators and, in some cases, as happened in Argentina, the information documented in truth processes can be used to prosecute those ultimately responsible for major crimes.
Disclosure and acknowledgment of past abuses has also helped prevent attempts to rewrite or distort history – and helps to prevent their repetition in the future. Likewise, failure to acknowledge past crimes can foster resentment and, in some circumstances, contribute to demands for revenge. For example, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, some Serbs justified their attacks on their neighbors by claiming that they were taking revenge for crimes committed during World War II by fascist Croats and their Muslim allies.
Furthermore, truth commissions can consider the responsibility of those who, though not criminally guilty, may have helped create the conditions that contributed to terrible crimes. In many conflicts, including Sri Lanka’s, it is important to recognize the responsibility of those who fostered the ethnic discrimination that led to prolonged communal violence. A truth process can provide a means to recognize the worth and dignity of those who suffered, and clarify who caused that suffering. Once a country’s citizens know exactly what was done, they can begin an honest debate about why such dreadful crimes were committed.
Francis’s call for reconciliation was what one should expect from a Christian leader committed to forgiveness for those who acknowledge their sins. The fact that he advocated the pursuit of truth as a means to achieve that purpose demonstrates that he understands the significance that such efforts have had in countries where the state itself has committed major crimes. As he put it in Sri Lanka, overcoming “the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility, and mistrust left by the conflict...can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity, and peace.”
It is estimated that government forces in Sri Lanka killed about 40,000 civilians during the closing stages of the war. So far, there has been no accountability. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ran the country from 2005 until earlier this month, refused to allow any investigation into the killings. By accepting Francis’s call for the pursuit of truth, his successor, Maithripala Sirisena, has an opportunity to put the country firmly on the path toward sustainable peace.