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< About Transitional Justice

Transitional Justice Tools: Truth Seeking

A grave site in Kigali, Rwanda.

A grave site in Kigali, Rwanda. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Truth seeking measures aim to encourage societies to develop and agree upon a shared history or collective memory of a period of widespread conflict or violence. They may also provide an opportunity for victims to tell their stories and to be heard in an official forum. These processes may help societies understand the scale and impact of what has occurred. 

Truth seeking efforts can take many forms but truth commissions are the most common. Truth commissions are temporary bodies established to research and investigate what happened during a specific period of violence or conflict by conducting public hearings, taking statements from victims and witnesses, and carrying out independent research. Truth commissions often publish their findings in a written report with recommendations for the future. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (external link), which was established to address the conflict and abuses perpetrated during the apartheid regime, may be the best known truth commission. However, truth commissions with different mandates and focuses have been established all around the world.

Memorials and museums can also fulfill a truth seeking function. Some memorials and museums present a well-researched, authoritative narrative about the past and serve as a repository of information and primary resources about that period in history. Like many transitional justice measures, memorials and museums may promote social healing in many other ways. By honoring the lives of victims and recognizing the experiences of survivors of conflict, they may help to repair past suffering. Memorials and museums often serve as an important reminder of a past that should not be repeated and may even help to guarantee that atrocities do not recur. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum incorporates the idea of honoring the memory of the past by working to prevent future atrocities in a unique way through the Simon Skjodt Center's work. As Elie Wiesel, the Museum’s founding Chairperson said, a “memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.”

It is important to note that as is the case with all transitional justice measures, some experts have raised concerns about the risks of truth seeking efforts. Some claim that they may reignite conflict by preventing people from moving forward from the past. Others have noted that truth seeking efforts can be co-opted by autocratic regimes to tell a one-sided, self-serving version of history. Like all transitional justice measures, truth seeking measures must strive for independence, legitimacy, inclusivity, and credibility. Consulting and including diverse victim groups and affected communities throughout the truth seeking process is therefore critical.