Professor Rachel López challenged longstanding assumptions about truth commissions during a discussion on July 17.
While advocates have argued that truth commissions do little to hold those guilty of human rights violations accountable for their deeds, López said the process these commissions follow can play a key role in bringing about justice.
López, the director of the Community Lawyering Clinic, recently completed a study of transitional justice mechanisms as a Fulbright Scholar. She spent 2016-17 in Guatemala and Spain exploring transitional justice mechanisms that followed the genocide of 200,000 Mayan Indians in Guatemala.
She contrasted the findings of a United Nations-backed truth commission with those of a Catholic Church-led initiative that human rights advocates believed would hold those responsible for the genocide to account more effectively. Even though the U.N.-sponsored commission granted amnesty for all except crimes against humanity, López discovered that it assembled a critical record, uncovering a historic context and patterns of activity by the military that facilitated subsequent prosecutions of those involved in the genocide. By contrast, López said, the church-backed commission that identified perpetrators by name was far less effective in providing evidence that could be used in criminal trials.
“There’s now been a litany of prosecutions and convictions of officials in Guatemala,” López said. “Without these truth commission reports, there was no prosecution.”