Truth Commission proceedings

A “Truth Commission” or a “Commission of Inquiry” is a flexible body established to investigate and report on human rights abuses.  Such a Commission can either focus on a particular incident or on a period of time.  The organizers of a truth commission can adopt a range of processes and procedures. 

Truth commissions allow victims, relatives of victims, journalists, experts and perpetrators to come forth and provide testimony.  The strict rules governing the introduction of evidence in trials are typically more relaxed in truth commissions.  As a result, during truth commissions, there is a greater opportunity for individuals to come forward with stories of harms they have suffered.

The goal of a truth commission is to gather testimony, to publish and disseminate a report regarding the event/period under discussion and to provide recommendations on how the matter should be further pursued and how such abuses can be prevented in the future. 

The purpose of a truth commission is to allow victims to have a voice, to publicize the abuses of human rights, and to account for past atrocities. 

The legitimacy of such a commission is derived from (a) the authority and reputation of those receiving testimony and writing a report; (b) the inclusion of diverse voices from across the political spectrum; (c) the publicization of the hearings (where appropriate) and publicization of the final report; and (d) the partnership created between various governments, political parties and organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society.

Such commissions have been established in various countries, including South Africa, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala.

A truth commission established to investigate the 1988 (1367) massacre of political prisoners and mass executions of early years of 1980s(1360s) , would be unusual in that it would be among the first truth commissions established exclusively by civil society without the backing of a government.  Furthermore, it would be an unusual process in that it would be among the first truth commissions to examine human rights abuses by a government still in power.

However, truth commission are generally considered so flexible that an innovative 1980s Truth Commission would not be a major problem. 

A 1980s Truth Commission would require a panel of international experts/commissioners (drawn, preferably, from the fields of law, politics, human rights, academia and journalism).  Although the presence of lawyers/judges is important, it is preferable that the panel of experts is not comprised exclusively lawyers/judges, since such a panel would convey the impression that the commission is intended as a legal proceeding rather than as a fact-finding proceeding.  A professionally diverse panel would be best.  Moreover, since the 1980 case has not had much international press coverage, it would be best if the panel would be made up of influential international figures. 

A significant point for the organizers to discuss is whether or not the panel should also have representatives from various Iranian opposition parties.  If it is decided that the opposition should be represented, it is important that the major political movements be represented.  However, it is equally important that despite the presence of such opposition figures, the process be seen as completely neutral and non-political.  After consideration of the issue, the organizers might decided that it is best to limit the seats on the commission just to experts and not to give seats to opposition figures.

If possible, as many human rights organizations as possible – both Iranian and non-Iranian – should know about this Truth Commission and should work in partnership with the organizers.  The more involved such groups are in the planning of the Truth Commission, the more likely they are to publicize the event both before and after its occurrence.

The panel may receive testimony for a period of time (e.g. over one or two weeks) from victims, families, and experts.  During this time, the people presenting testimony may appear in person before the commission, may appear via video-conference or may present written testimony.  The witnesses should speak solely about their experiences or their area of expertise.  For example, victims’ families should simply explain events as they witnessed them in 1980.  They should not speak about issues unrelated to 1980s, or events about which they are not certain. 

It is important that the Truth Commission extend an invitation to the Islamic Republic, and in particular to individuals likely to be named by the Truth Commission as perpetrators (e.g. PourMohammadi, Nayerri, etc…).  While they will almost certainly not appear to give testimony, it is important to be able to say that they had the opportunity to appear.

Once the commissioners receive all the testimony, they should produce a written report that states their findings.  While such reports start with brief executive summaries, they are usually lengthy and fairly detailed.  The report should discuss the commission’s understanding of the events of 1980s, indicate who the perpetrators were and how the matter ought to be pursued further.  It is important that the report be professionally translated and available in Farsi, English, and French.  (In light of the fact that the group organizing the event is based in Sweden, the organizers might also consider a Swedish translation.)

It is incredibly important that this commission draw as much media attention as possible. Prior to the meeting of Truth Commission, the media should be told about it.  Journalists should be allowed to cover the testimony of witnesses (unless a witness specifically asks to give testimony in private).  Furthermore, the release of the report should be covered as widely as possible, both by Iranian media outside Iran (e.g. Farsi newspapers in Europe and North America, Voice of America’s Persian service, BBC Persian) and by the non-Iranian media.  The panelists should try to publish newspaper articles in the newspapers of their countries regarding the experience of serving on this truth commission and their findings. 

The report produced should be used as a publicity tool to draw international attention to the 1980s crimes.

Kaveh Shahrooz

New York