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Following a tumultuous and divisive four years under the Trump administration that culminated in white extremist groups storming the U.S. Capitol, Joe Biden’s inaugural speech as the 46th president of the United States focused on rebuilding, healing and restoring the nation. Since Biden gave that speech on January 20, the word “unity” has come to capture that spirit. But what does that mean—and how might that be accomplished?
Setting aside grievances is not the work of a moment: it is a process. Some scholars, activists and journalists have argued that unity, particularly racial unity, is possible only with accountability. Others have called for a truth commission, one that would go well beyond the Trump years to uncover the prevalence of racism, and its crimes, since America’s founding.
Biden has maintained that his administration will prioritize the truth. But he has not stated that a truth commission will be established to uncover the violations and irregularities under the Trump presidency, let alone one that will investigate racism in America that goes as far back as slavery. The idea of such a body, one that focuses on racism in the United States, is one that that has simmered in Congress for years. Representative Barbara Lee’s H.Con. Res. 100 “Urging the Establishment of a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation” was introduced in the House in June, while other legislation to address racism in the United States—including resolutions related to reparations for African Americans and apologies for slavery—have been presented to the House, but not acted on.
Since Biden has become president, academics, journalists, and even famous musicians such as Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder have come forward to advocate for a commission that focuses on truth as a precondition for racial healing. Additionally, the New York Times has proposed the establishment of a task force led by a reality czar to address the ongoing problem of mis- and disinformation that has plagued the media over the past four years. Transitional justice mechanisms are seemingly becoming part of the mainstream popular culture.
But will a truth commission alone forge unity and heal and rebuild a divided nation? No.
The idea of unity comes from a political need to rewrite a national narrative and mark a symbolic break with the past, often a recent history scarred by authoritarianism or conflict. By including the stories and struggles of groups previously excluded from power and visibility, this revised narrative also introduces new heroes, creates new national symbols, and renews its commitment to all citizens.
A truth commission is just one mechanism that might serve this purpose. In countries that have suffered mass atrocities, or human rights violations such as police brutality and socioeconomic marginalization based on ethnic or racial discrimination, punishing the many perpetrators involved can perpetuate animosity without restoring the lives of those who have suffered.
In such cases, truth commissions literally uncover the truth about the past, recognize the pain of survivors and victims, and lay a platform for national healing and a new national story. South Africa and Rwanda are two countries of the many that have undergone such national truth commission processes.
Is this what the United States needs now? Let’s look at other examples.
Building Unity and Reconciliation in South Africa
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) attempted to promote reconciliation and nation building and ensure that past abuses would not be repeated. Despite its many shortcomings, it is probably one of the most cited, and well-known, truth commissions. The United States could learn some lessons from its shortcomings.
As part of the end of apartheid and the birth of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu dubbed the “rainbow nation,” the TRC, negotiated during the transfer of power, was established in 1995. The most contested clause of the legislation—amnesty—gave pardons to perpetrators in exchange for full disclosure of the truth about what they had done. As a counterbalance, the suffering of survivors of human rights violations would be recognized through the provision of a forum for telling their own stories, and providing reparations.
One of the problems with allowing amnesty for perpetrators was that the Apartheid government relied on a complicated web of informants and assassins to stifle the growing anti-Apartheid activism of the 1980s, funding death squads that thrived on killing Black people. The network of perpetrators went beyond the high-ranking officials who gave the orders. The very system of Apartheid and its intelligence structure enabled security forces—police, military and intelligence agents—to perpetrate human rights violations indiscriminately and in secret. Most of these perpetrators and informants within the liberation movements did not testify in the truth commission because they had little incentive, beyond the ethical imperative of clearing their consciences. Their identities and their actions continue to remain a secret despite the truth commission.
For this and numerous other reasons, critics of the TRC argue that the burden of attaining the goals of unity and reconciliation was placed too heavily on survivors, the majority of whom were Black. They were not only forced to accept that their offenders would go free but were also obliged to forgive: the narrative of reconciliation and unity, and the eligibility for reparations, implicitly required them to do so.
Yet, 25 years after the transition to democracy, survivors of apartheid’s violence continue to struggle for reparations and recognition; little has been done to convict the few perpetrators who were not granted amnesty. White South Africans who were bystanders to violence, and who perpetrated and benefited from the Apartheid state, were absolved by default.
And finally, the vast majority of South Africans continue to suffer from poverty, and the violence that accompanies that. Narratives of unity and reconciliation have made almost no difference to ordinary Black South Africans’ lives. Unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents to a 2019 survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation said that reconciliation is still necessary in South Africa: they cited inequality, race and political parties as the major barriers to unity.
Enforcing Unity in Rwanda
While some countries seek to facilitate nation-building and reconciliation, others such as Rwanda actively enforce unity. In 1994, Rwanda experienced a brutal genocide, one in which members of the Hutu ethnic group sought to obliterate their Tutsi neighbors. Careful planning, ideology, incitement and hate speech, and a populist media that was accessible and appealed to the majority of people were some of the factors that contributed to the massacre of approximately 800,000 Rwandans over 100 days. To cope with the scale of loss and hold the many perpetrators accountable, Rwanda turned to the traditional gacaca courts, allowing local communities to hold low-ranking perpetrators accountable and establish the truth about those who had been lost to the violence.
These local trials had varied results. Thousands of perpetrators were held accountable, and many families learned the fate of their dead loved ones. There were also significant challenges, including false charges against perpetrators and bias against victims who were not of Tutsi descent.
But to further encourage national unity, the government acted to persuade its citizens to tell a new story about themselves. A focus on national identity has been woven into the school curriculum, and reconciliation villages, where rehabilitated prisoners and survivors live together, have been established. Finally, the government has passed strict laws that ban people from mentioning their ethnic identity: the focus is instead on a Rwandan national identity.
These methods are also coercive to a greater or lesser degree, as are other aspects of contemporary Rwandan governance. While President Kgame has sometimes been commended for his efforts to rebuild the socioeconomic life of the nation, he has also been accused of suppressing democratic values such as freedom of speech and other human rights.
Furthermore, for many Rwandans, the imposition of reconciliation rules that govern their daily lives has not promoted recovery from the trauma. In some cases, it may aggravate it. Facing a perpetrator—the person who may have raped a daughter or killed a husband—makes forgetting and healing difficult. And the implicit connotations associated with being either a member of a victim group or a perpetrator group can be a difficult burden.
Both South Africa and Rwanda show us that, as a transitional justice mechanism, truth commissions do not always achieve the desired goals of nation building and reconciliation, especially when a country is deeply divided along racial or ethnic lines and when an unjust system has rendered so many complicit.
When truth commissions do achieve results, the process is constrained because commissions are limited in both scale and scope. For example, if a racial healing commission were to be established in the United States, key questions would be: which violations should be explored, and over what time periods? Would it investigate recent violations? Would it go as far back as slavery? Would it focus on the racist history of public education, the school-to-prison pipeline systems of justice and police brutality? Given the pervasiveness of American racism, what would it not investigate?
Reconciliation and unity require time and, most importantly, a bottom-up approach and political will. Its processes need to be local and national. If the Biden administration is to genuinely begin building the foundation for unity across racial divides, local communities of all races and ethnicities must be engaged in a dialogue about what unity, reconciliation, and healing mean.
They also must anticipate what these concepts would look like and identify the prerequisites for achieving them. Several state and district-level initiatives are already in progress. But acknowledging the limitations of a national process, and recognizing that the current administration has not made any promises for a truth commission, are there ways to support these local truth-telling efforts in a more coordinated way?
A truth commission in the United States would need to overcome a complex and volatile racial landscape where many whites refuse their complicity in the violence of racism, and even portray themselves as victims of racial prejudice. Similarly, a challenge seen in nations like Rwanda, South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sri Lanka—settings characterized by ethnic or racial divisions—is that both sides of the divide almost always claim victimhood. This is a means to gain recognition and acknowledgement from the state, and a way to establish and leverage political agency in a new climate.
This will be a problem in the United States as well. The white extremists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, an act which ended in the death of five people and injuries to over a hundred, nevertheless position themselves as victims of oppression and discrimination by a variety of forces on the left, including people of color.
One suggestion has been that Americans find some kind of neutral ground to begin the process. But embarking on a transitional justice process is not an act of moral neutrality: documented evidence of police brutality and police collusion cannot be disputed. Slavery and its legacy of systemic racial discrimination can be traced and documented. Black Americans in particular are the victims of centuries of injustice, oppression perpetuated by a system that was created to favor whiteness. The last four years of the Trump presidency merely illuminated this. America’s reckoning with its racist past will therefore require more than a truth commission.
Ereshnee Naidu-Silverman has over 20 years’ experience working in critical post-conflict settings on issues of truth, justice and reconciliation. She has written and spoken extensively about transitional justice issues.