Brooklyn Law Review


Inga N. Laurent


Across the United States, there are mounting and renewed calls for applying restorative justice principles to deeply entrenched societal ills based on reconciliation, namely in the form of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs). Amid our great mobilization, we would be wise to pause, contemplating lessons from lived experiences. Since the 1970s, approximately thirty-five national truth commissions have taken place. In South Africa, Canada, Sierra Leone, and many processes, TRCs have proven adept at cataloguing approved instances of victim and survivors’ (VS) stories and elaborately contextualizing conflict through a new historical lens. Despite the transformative potential of TRCs, they are still part of transitional justice programming and, therefore, unavoidably political endeavors. In seeking truth, we must remember – those who compose the process also control the narrative. When under the control and direction of a state with truly “therapeutic” aims, a TRC can be a powerful tool to reinforce citizen welfare and state legitimacy. Conversely, truth-seeking mechanisms also contain a range of discursive limitations that severely constrict the nuance of individual and collective truths. Additionally, although science and experience have proven that truth telling has some positive consequences for VS of human rights violations, developing scientific and empirical data dictate proceeding cautiously. The process of cataloguing truth according to certain temporal, categorical, and colonial framing limitations, for example, can affect individual agency. Through the process, identities and experiences can be fragmented, frozen in a nondynamic moment in time made to fit into a hegemonic reconciliatory narrative on the event. This phenomenon denies individuals the ability to express a full range of emotions, which is often necessary to their healing process. Lessons learned from previous TRCs establish an increased responsibility to consider where previous processes have fallen short and how to amend them. To maximize the healing potential of an American TRC, thoughtful planning must be directed to both the “Truth” and the “Reconciliation” components of the TRC process. This article is forward focused with an eye on remedial analysis and an emphasis on the “Truth” component of TRC process. As we work to refashion our Country’s future, we must look beyond the political and legal, and join with other disciplines—especially psychology—and be led by the people most affected, if we hope to achieve meaningful reconciliation. This article asks us to consider the professional obligations owed to those who have been (and continue to be) harmed and to develop a collaborative process that places VS needs and voices at the center of TRC programming. Community engagement and design at all levels is imperative so that spaces for truth telling promote dignity and allow for a full array of emotional expression. There needs to be a commitment to a TRC process that recognizes that the harms, which must be healed, are not located in the distant, “historical” past but are alive and ongoing. Due to the evolving evidence of the harm TRCs can cause, any new process has an obligation to provide meaningful benefits to participants.