The Truth About the Yugoslav Truth Commission

When dictatorships fall, how can societies heal the wounds? Truth commissions are increasingly seen as the way forward. But when do they work best and what structures and rules make them work most effectively? When are they a means to unearth the truth and restore social peace and when are they merely a clever way for politicians to avoid responsibility and a reckoning with the past? Serbia is a test case for all of these issues.

In one respect, the body appointed by President Vojislav Kostunica to examine the crimes of Yugoslavia’s recent past is like South Africa’s successful model: it is called a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The resemblance ends there.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by legislation after careful consideration by parliament and extensive discussion across the country. Fourteen months elapsed between the time Justice Minister Dullah Omar announced the government's intention to establish a commission and its signature into law by President Nelson Mandela. The mandate and the operating procedures of the Commission were clearly spelled out. A timetable for the Commission to report was specified. Measures were incorporated to ensure that the Commission would obtain the testimony of perpetrators as well as victims.

Though the South African Cabinet decided that the hearings at which perpetrators would disclose their crimes should be closed, Parliament amended this to require that they should do so in public. Funds were appropriated for the Commission's operations. After the law was signed President Mandela appointed a committee to assist him in identifying those who should serve. 299 names were submitted. The committee held public hearings and selected 25 to forward to President Mandela. He chose 17, appointing Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man widely acknowledged as South Africa's moral conscience, to chair the Commission.