Humanity’s histories: Evaluating the historical accounts of International Tribunals and Truth Commissions

By Richard Ashby Wilson

This article evaluates the longstanding view that courts cannot generally provide satisfactory historical narratives of political violence, on the grounds that their methods and aims are too narrow, or because they are too focused upon other objectives, such as judging the guilt or innocence of individuals. These arguments have been used in support of new, non-legal institutions such as Truth Commissions, which are held to produce more comprehensive views of the past. The article assesses these arguments by examining the reports of Truth Commissions in Guatemala, South Africa, and Peru and the judgments of international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It notes that international Truth Commissions and tribunals tend to produce more comprehensive and undistorted accounts of the past because they are less constrained by nation-building imperatives and employ international law concepts such as "genocide" which require examining the more systematic and collective dimensions of a conflict. It concludes that the important factor in writing an adequate historical account of political conflict may lie less in whether an institution is legal or non-legal and more in its organizational relationship to the nation-state and in the concepts of international humanitarian law that guide it.

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