The executive secretary of the TRRC, Dr. Baba Galleh Jallow, was the keynote speaker at a conference on African truth commissions held at the campus of the University of Ghana, Legon on the 26th and 27th August, 2019.
The conference, under the theme “Truth Commissions and Transitional Justice Processes in Africa” was organised and convened by the “Confronting Atrocity Project” housed at the Department of History and Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University, Canada.
The conference brought together expert transitional justice scholars, practitioners, policy makers and civil society stakeholders to discuss and comparatively assess the work, outcomes and legacies of truth commissions established in Africa over the past three decades.
In his keynote address, titled “The Gambian TRRC: Towards a ‘Comprehensive Model’ of truth Commissions”, Dr. Jallow explained the origins and establishment of the TRRC based on an ethic of inclusiveness which, in a significant departure from previous truth commission practices, allows various units of the secretariat to be actively engaged in outreach activities to include all segments of Gambian society in a national conversation designed to prevent recurrence of dictatorship in The Gambia. He showed how the TRRC, like truth commissions everywhere, is having to grapple with the thorny issues of retributive justice versus truth and reconciliation, accusations of witch hunting, and managing expectations surrounding reparations.
He highlighted how the release of four Junglers by the Justice Minister raised a storm of protests especially by victims’ families.
Highlighting some of the key achievements of the TRRC, Dr. Jallow explained how the comprehensive and inclusive approach of the Gambian truth commission has captured the national imagination and generated a robust national conversation on, among other things “the human capacity for cruelty and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable odds” and more broadly, “conversations about the past, about what happened, how, and to some extent, why.”
These narratives, he said, “contain lessons that, while not necessarily new in the wider scheme of things, have a way of inspiring ideas and questions on the nature of the human mind, and the often absolutely incomprehensible banality of atrocity.
” Dr. Jallow also told the conference that “an effective truth commission must jealously guard its independence and integrity.
There must be zero tolerance for interference by the state as well as resistance to external actors wanting to impose their own ideas on how things ought to be done.
Indigenous realities and objectives must both shape the commission and determine its strategies of operation.”
In his concluding remarks, Dr. Jallow said that “in spite of their very practical limitations and the persistent controversy surrounding their existence and mandates, truth commissions engender narratives that help societies come to terms with their painful past and cement their determination to build a better future.”
Truth commissions, he pointed out, “are valuable avenues for healing and closure for victims and their loved ones” as they “confront their painful past, address their tormentors, know the fate of their loved ones, or get some form of acknowledgment and compensation.”
One of Dr. Jallow’s key recommendations to the conference was that “in the light of practical context-specific challenges, scholars, policy makers and practitioners of transitional justice in Africa must learn to think beyond conventional notions of what a truth commission should look like and what its specific roles should be.
In essence, a truth commission in the African context must be thought of as both a quasi-judicial transitional justice mechanism and an institution for civic education and popular empowerment.” He said within the African context, “an effective truth commission process must include robust civic engagement and popular empowerment.
Dictatorship thrives and human rights violations are committed with impunity largely because in Africa, the great majority of citizens are not empowered enough to stand up to their governments. A politically empowered citizenry is the best guarantee against oppression and political impunity.”
Finally, Dr. Jallow advised that “an effective truth commission must be inclusive in practical terms, both at the level of the commission as an institution and at the national level.
Truth commission secretariats must be adequately equipped both in terms of manpower and resources to be active participants in executing the commission’s mandate, especially through conducting outreach activities.
At the national level, as many local communities and actors as possible – religious and secular, artists, civil society organizations, and the media – must consciously be engaged and made partners in the transitional justice process.” He emphasized that “an effective truth commission process must be Janus-faced in both theory and practice.
Its investigations of past human rights abuses must go side by side with practical efforts at building a better and brighter future.”
The conference was attended by expert scholars in transitional justice, practitioners, policy makers and civil society representatives from various countries including Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, South Africa, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Feedback and comments from conference participants on the work of the TRRC were unfailingly positive and encouraging.