The Venezuelan Truth Commission
September 26, 2017
Truth commissions have become common practice in countries that have experienced periods of violence and democratic transitions. They seek to deal with impunity, to break the cycles of violence and human rights violations, and to establish, objectively and impartially, what actually happened during a certain period of time. The idea is to promote an authentic reconciliation. In some cases, truth commissions have provided policy recommendations that seek to identify and address the causes of abuses and violations and prevent their future repetition.
Historically, truth commissions have been created during periods of political change, when dictatorial regimes collapse or after an armed conflict. It is not common for authoritarian and repressive regimes to promote them. The most important objective is to investigate abuses of authority and illegitimate violence: violations of human rights, especially the rights to life and physical integrity; torture; forced disappearances; and sexual violence. Truth commissions also examine crimes against humanity and war crimes. More recently, corruption offenses have also been investigated.
Since the 1970s, a large number and diversity of truth commissions have been created in more than 40 countries. Just a few examples include Argentina (1984), El Salvador (1993), South Africa (1998), Perú (2001), and East Timor (2002).
The most important characteristic of a genuine truth commission must be its absolute impartiality. Accordingly, its members must be totally removed from all political bias and influence, as well as enjoy unblemished reputations and moral and professional records. The procedures for investigations must be absolutely transparent and not seek to replace the courts. It is not for them to establish individual criminal responsibilities, and their actions can serve only as evidence for judicial proceedings.
It has been generally accepted that the main characteristics of truth commissions (P. Hayner ; and E. González and H. Varney), defined in the legal instruments that create them (often a law or some form of executive decree), are:
- They focus on the recent past and intend to establish the facts about violent events that remain in dispute or are denied;
- They investigate a pattern of abuse over a set period of time rather than a specific event;
- They seek to protect, recognize, and empower victims and survivors, not only as informers but also as holders of rights and persons whose experiences deserve recognition and solidarity;
- They are temporary and complete their work by submitting reports, proposing policies, and promoting changes in the behavior of persons, groups, and institutions. The policy recommendations of the commissions seek to identify and address the causes of abuse and violations and prevent their future recurrence. Reconciliation between conflicting communities is of the first importance; and
- They are officially sanctioned, authorized, or empowered by the state. The idea is allowing the commissions to have easy access to information and assurance that their findings will be taken under serious consideration. Official sanction represents an acknowledgment of past wrongs and a commitment to address the issues and move forward.
In Venezuela, the National Constituent Assembly—convened by President Nicolás Maduro in violation of the Constitution and whose election has been denounced as clearly fraudulent—has created a “Commission for Truth, Justice and Public Tranquility,” a sort of court of inquisition, with extensive investigative and sanctioning powers.
So that there is no doubt about the nature of the National Constituent Assembly, all of its members belong to or sympathize with the ruling party, in a country in which the opposition won a two-thirds majority in the last parliamentary election and recent polls show a rejection of the regime that exceeds 80 percent.
This commission, which undermines the essence of truth commissions, has been almost unanimously rejected by the opposition, by civil society, and by the international community. The nongovernmental organization Transparency Venezuela has pointed out that instead of a truth commission, the Commission for Truth, Justice and Public Tranquility is actually a “revenge commission” that seeks to persecute the political opposition and those who dare to think differently.
Who are the members of the commission? Its president is Delcy Rodriguez, who also chairs the Constituent Assembly and was, until a few weeks ago, foreign minister of the government of Nicolás Maduro. The commission consists of the ombudsman, the attorney general, three members of the Constituent Assembly, three representatives of organizations of victims of political violence (1999–2017), a member of a Venezuelan human rights organization, two persons designated for their “professional competence, integrity and ethics,” and three members of the National Assembly representing the political “right.”
The Parliament refused to participate in this parody. The most prestigious human rights organizations were not even consulted, and only the “victims” sympathetic to the government were considered. In summary, the 14 members of the commission are militants or declared supporters of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela.
The chairwoman of the commission announced that it will address several investigations, including the destabilizing plans promoted by Julio Borges (speaker of the National Assembly) against the country’s socioeconomic and financial system; violence and terror generated by opposition groups in recent months led by Representative Freddy Guevara; and the alleged network of corruption and extortion headed by former attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz, who was illegally fired, and her husband.
There is no intention or plan to investigate the murders of hundreds of demonstrators, the thousands wounded in the streets of Venezuelan cities in recent months, systematic torture, arbitrary detentions, trials by military tribunals, looting of public money, or violations of freedom of expression.
Does anyone believe in or trust this kind of truth commission? I do not think so, but I do think that repudiation of this spurious manipulation must be much more audible and forceful before it begins to “establish truths” and impose “public tranquility.”
Gustavo Tarre is a former Venezuelan congressman and a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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