By Baba Galleh Jallow
Truth commissions are complicated institutions. Their very existence is mired in controversy. Their mandates are often complicated and misunderstood by the public they serve. They are often considered a panacea for all the human rights and criminal justice-related issues in society. They never manage to mobilize national consensus on their rationale for existence. Their mandate period is thus marked by an unresolvable controversy over the alleged primacy of criminal prosecution versus the alleged primacy of establishing the truth about what happened, promoting national reconciliation and healing, and making sure that what happened in the past never happens again.
Many people scoff at the idea of reconciliation, often going so far as to accuse those who establish truth commissions of trying to force reconciliation down the throats of victims. Their pre-establishment and establishment phases are characterized by all manner of tricky situations, ranging from the difficulty of securing adequate and timely funding, to the appointment of commissioners and the recruitment of staff. Even finding suitable office space is sometimes a challenge and some truth commissions spend a long time scouting around for a suitable location.
The Gambia’s TRRC is not immune to these challenges. In fact, the TRRC is experiencing all of the above as we set out on the tricky path of truth-seeking, healing and regeneration as a new and vibrant society that will never again tolerate dictatorship. As is to be expected, there is no national consensus about the need for the TRRC. While many Gambians support the idea of a truth commission, many others maintain strong skepticism as to the utility of the TRRC. Some see it as a very good way of helping Gambia heal and victims get closure and some form of justice and reparations, while others see it as an utter waste of time and resources or a phony political ploy to distract from reality. Still others believe that the TRRC will start hearings as soon as the commissioners are appointed.
This view often conflates the entire work of truth commissions with hearings, prosecutions and justice for the victims. The idea of reconciliation is given little serious thought because of the perceived zero sum relationship between victims and perpetrators. In many cases, the “never again” aspect of truth commission mandates is never seriously considered beyond recommendations for justice reforms and punishments for some perpetrators as a form of deterrence.
Like many other truth commissions around the world, the TRRC is faced with the problem of securing adequate and timely funding. While the guidelines for the selection of commissioners were published several weeks ago and calls for nominations published in the media and widely disseminated, the recruitment process itself is not going as fast as anticipated. Funding expected from the UNDP to finance the recruitment exercise for commissioners has been slow in coming. The issue is further complicated by the slowness of the work of government. Tedious procedures and bureaucratic inaction in some quarters have slowed and complicated the work of the TRRC in important respects. Sometimes, government transactions that should take no more than a few days drag on for weeks on end, months even for reasons that are not easily understood. However, as at the time of writing, it seems as if the requisite funds from the UNDP and the Gambia government will soon be released to allow the TRRC process to proceed as envisioned.
It must be admitted that even when the funds are secured and available for investment in the process, there are still a lot of important things to do and challenges to overcome before the hearings of the TRRC begin. The recruitment processes for commissioners and staff of the TRRC will take some time. As soon as possible, the available positions at the TRRC Secretariat will be advertised in the national media. And after commissioners are appointed and staff recruited, they will get some orientation on the commission’s mandate and the various roles they have to play in the process. And then begins the first steps towards the first hearings – statement taking, where victims come forward and tell their stories on a one-to-one basis as a preliminary step towards public or in-camera testimony as the case may be. Where there is any doubt as to their veracity, some of these statements may be investigated and verified by the TRRC’s team of investigators. And then the commissioners will identify the cases with which to begin their hearing – or listening – sessions as one might call them.
Meanwhile, the challenge of finding suitable office space must be surmounted. Once suitable premises are found, they have to be fitted for the job. Some renovations might be needed, furniture must be bought, telephone lines installed, computers set up, and among other things, enough stationary and small electronic devices such as tape recorders and microphones bought to get the work started. As we can imagine, setting up the work space itself could take time and there is no way that the commission can start its hearings without these things in place. Work is currently ongoing to identify suitable office space for the TRRC.
Traditionally, truth commission work is limited to its formal mandate. This includes establishing a true historical record of what happened, obtaining justice and reparations for victims, recommending prosecution or amnesty for perpetrators, and publishing a final report in which the commission makes recommendations including how best to prevent a recurrence of past atrocities. The recommendations on how to prevent recurrence may include institutional and justice reforms and lustration or vetting processes designed to make the state more nation-friendly and to prevent perpetrators of gross human rights violations from staying within the public service or holding important public office for at least some time. The recommendations may also include the establishment of institutions to build upon and implement important aspects of the truth commission findings after the commission itself is dissolved.
While truth commissions are significantly inspired by a desire not only to provide justice for the victims but also to prevent the recurrence of dictatorship in a society, the “never again” aspect of its mandate is often marginalized. There are some cases where the governments totally refuse to make the findings of the truth commission public or publish its report. And there are cases where reports are published but the recommendations of the truth commission are never implemented. In some cases, the recommendations of truth commissions are so obstructive of selfish political interests that commissioners and staff find themselves on the receiving end of public vendettas. Considering that the “never again” aspects of the recommendations in these reports never see the light of day, the recurrence of dictatorship and tyranny in some societies remains a troubling possibility even after a truth commission process.
Conscious that preventing the recurrence of dictatorship in this country is a top national priority for all Gambians, the TRRC is actively thinking outside the box to make sure that work on the “never again” aspect of its mandate is not stalled by any of the above challenges. The TRRC is not waiting for the end of its mandate to recommend ways of preventing a recurrence of dictatorship and tyranny in this country. While the establishment of its institutional structures is ongoing, the TRRC is actively engaged in outreach activities designed to kick start a national conversation on the empowered transformation of Gambian society and civic culture. We are actively taking steps to ensure that the TRRC process is victim-centered and people-owned, and to promote the view that all Gambians have a say in the betterment of our society and should participate in a national conversation on how best to overcome our inimical differences and heal unhealthy political, ethnic, and religious cleavages within our society. Thus to complement the formal work of the Commission which is yet to begin, we have initiated a process of ongoing civic engagement and dialogue that will give ownership of the TRRC process to the Gambian public in order to actualize the all-important “never again” aspect of the TRRC mandate.
In this spirit the TRRC Secretariat is actively working Gambian civil society organizations and international bodies such as the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), among others. We have had several meetings and conversations with the Center for the Victims of Human Rights Violations (Victims Center) and are collaborating with them on some activities that will promote their cause, help animate our national conversation, facilitate justice and healing for the victims and their families, and ultimately put them at the center of the TRRC process. In close collaboration with the ICTJ, the TRRC is facilitating support to the Victims Center in the form of staff and volunteer training, strategy development, proposal writing, and an ongoing partnership in their quest for justice and reparations for their members and other victims of human rights violations yet to register with them. We have had conversations with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with a view to seeing how best and in what areas they can assist both the center and individual victims needing medical treatment for certain types of conditions, including psychological trauma. The ICRC has expressed strong interest in supporting the TRRC’s work on the disappeared.
The TRRC has had fruitful conversations with “Gambia Kiling” (One Gambia) and is collaborating with them to organize what we believe will be the first of many public conversations on issues of crucial national importance to our country. The TRRC hopes to continue organizing similar fora in collaboration with “Gambia Kiling” and other civil society organizations and communities across the country. The TRRC Secretariat actively encourages any civil society organization interested in collaborating with us to please reach out and share ideas. Our doors are open and we are always happy to collaborate on public events that further the cause of truth, justice, reconciliation, national unity and popular empowerment in Gambian society. This is an essential priority component of our “never again” mandate.
The TRRC Secretariat in currently talking to TANGO with a view to working together to promote a national conversation on “The Gambia We Want.” This conversation has already been started by TANGO and the TRRC is happy to collaborate and actively participate in an ongoing national conversation on this important theme. We are scheduled to meet with TANGO in the next few days to see how best we can collaborate going forward. The TRRC recognizes that in The Gambia we all want, there will be no room for dictatorship and oppression of the kind we experienced under the past regime. And we can and we will create that Gambia in partnership with TANGO, Gambian communities and all interested civil society organizations.
The TRRC recognizes the crucial role that the media will play in our truth, reconciliation and reparations processes. We therefore seek active engagement with Gambian media of all kinds in our work. We have already had the opportunity to speak to several media houses, both national and international, and to sit in on at least two live panel discussions on GRTS and West Coast Radio. The TRRC recognizes that perhaps more than any other actors, the media will be responsible for the dissemination and synchronization of our national conversation on how best to create a better and brighter Gambia. A national media training session on reporting truth commissions is at the early stages of planning. This workshop will bring together 30 journalists from all sectors of the Gambian media with a view to brainstorming on the sensitive nature of reporting truth commission procedures, especially those involving child and gender-based violations.
Thus unlike a traditional truth commission, the TRRC’s work will be characterized by two closely connected but distinct processes. Once it is up and running, the commission will carry out its traditional functions of hearings, justice for victims, reparations, amnesty etc. with a view to issuing a report with recommendations at the end of its mandate. In the meantime, the TRRC believes that work on the prevention of future dictatorship, the healing of social fractures, the promotion of national unity and the empowerment of the Gambian people can happen through an ongoing process of national engagement and conversation across political, ethnic and religious lines. The TRRC is therefore conceptualized as both a formal transitional justice mechanism and a transformative cultural institution that, through creative engagement with the Gambian public – civil society organizations, educational institutions, and grassroots community structures – will ensure that by the end of its mandate, the “never again” aspect of its mission would have been largely accomplished. Meanwhile, the TRRC will share periodic updates on the state of its work with the general public.