Why victims and survivors of atrocities need a right to the truth

Commemorating victims of enforced disappearances in the Philippines. EPA/Eugenio Loreto

When heinous atrocities and human rights violations are committed, knowing the truth about what happened to the victims matters.

In many conflicts raging around the world today, among them those in Syria, Yemen, and Nigeria, legal norms meant to protect civilians are being utterly disregarded, with brutal consequences for thousands of people. When the dust settles on gross human rights violations, victims of these crimes should have the right to know who and what caused their suffering, and what happened to family members who went missing. Societies should also have the right to know and understand what happened to them as a whole.

Documenting patterns of violence not only serves as a record of human rights abuses, it may also lead to information on victims who may still be alive. Survivors need to mourn their dead, and they also have pressing practical needs; they often need formal evidence of what happened to file insurance claims, reparation schemes and other benefits.

These are urgent moral imperatives – and they are increasingly being acknowledged.

March 24 marks the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. The date commemorates the 1980 assassination of Óscar Romero, human rights advocate and archbishop of San Salvador. He campaigned for justice and peace for his fellow citizens against a repressive regime and during a brutal conflict; he was assassinated by a paramilitary unit.

The right to the truth is being advocated and shaped by various actors, from governments to NGOs and civil society groups. The UN officially deems it essential to recognise the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations. International law recognises the right of victims and survivors to know about the circumstances of serious violations of their human rights. Initially conceived as the right of families to know the fate of their loved ones, the idea has since evolved into a more-encompassing right that extends to society.

Archbishop Óscar Romero. Wikimedia Commons

When confronted with a history of human rights violations, states are obliged to undertake, on their own initiative, effective, independent investigation to provide victims, their next of kin and the public with a full and detailed understanding of what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible, both directly and indirectly. The purpose is not only to satisfy the need to know, but also to provide the basis on which victims and others can obtain whatever reparation the law permits for these violations of fundamental rights.

The right to the truth also forms a central and necessary element in efforts to combat impunity for human rights violations. On the basis of a proper understanding of the facts, victims, prosecutors and others can then pursue the right to justice against perpetrators as well as the right to reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition.

Mechanisms that can help achieve the right to the truth are truth commissions, official inquiries and courts of law. But they have their detractors and often face serious obstacles.

Uphill struggles

Any government or organisation charged with seeking the truth may clash with political forces seeking to protect their own interests, whether or not those same forces were involved in the crimes being investigated. In societies transitioning from dictatorship or conflict to a less violent future, some people imagine that silence, forgetting and even impunity are needed to keep all sides on board with the process of peace.

Then there’s the problem of multiple, contested and unacknowledged truths; if these are downplayed or overlooked, the result can be an incomplete or unsatisfying process of truth-seeking and truth-telling that leaves deep problems and grievances unresolved.

These are all understandable complications, but they should not deter truth-seeking efforts. The need for truth is seemingly universal; what is required is a clarification in international law whether a right to it can be articulated and upheld as a right in itself, rather than as an aspect of other rights. A standalone right has to be robust and convey some real force, not just aspiration or rhetoric.

But no matter what the legal basis, truth-seeking and truth-telling carry moral weight regardless of what mechanism is used. In an era marred by post-truth politics and blatant contempt for the actual facts, finding and telling the truth is all the more urgent.

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