Justice and Politics : On the Depoliticization of Justice Claims in the Work of Truth Commissions

Abstract: Truth commissions have become a widespread and normalized institutions for addressing past human rights violations. One of the central ideas behind the concept of truth commissions is that it is necessary to establish the truth about the past and allow victims to speak publicly about the violations to which they have been exposed. Truth and truth-telling are presumed to contribute to justice in the aftermath of large-scale human rights violations. The aim of this study is to critically analyse the concept of truth commissions by looking at three normative assumptions that underlie their establishment and their work. The three normative assumptions are problematized with the help of three research questions concerning a tenable understanding of justice in the aftermath of large-scale human rights violations, the role of truth for justice, and the impacts of truth-telling, respectively.The main argument of the study presents a challenge to truth commissions’ proclaimed aim of contributing to justice. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s and Paul Ricœur’s perspectives on justice, I argue that taking political and moral responsibility for the committed atrocities is the most tenable option. From this perspective, using truth commissions as institutions of restorative justice may be counterproductive. This study asserts that their focus on truth and truth-telling leads to a depoliticization of past violence and, hence, insufficient responsibility being taken for the atrocities. The concept of depoliticization is developed with the help of Michel Foucault’s analysis of the relationship between truth and power and Hannah Arendt’s notion of the political and its relation to truth. I argue that even though the decision to establish a truth commission is a political one, it aims at redirecting the problem of responsibility for human rights violations from the political domain to the quasi-judicial, resulting in the evasion of not only legal but also moral and political responsibility. The philosophical arguments of the study are contextualized through an examination of Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission.

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