Truth commissions are temporary bodies that aim to disclose the truth about past human rights violations. Drawing on Hayner's widely used definition, truth commissions are created to investigate patterns of human rights abuses over a period of time, to engage directly and broadly with the affected population and to issue a final report recommending reparations programmes and institutional reforms to ensure such abuses do not reoccur.
These bodies have been used in more than 30 countries since the fall of the military regime in Argentina in 1983. From an historical perspective, the first generation of truth commissions included those established in the Southern Cone of Latin America. Despite the limitations of the initial commissions, these represented the baseline and were a source of inspiration for later truth commissions. Since then, ‘truth commissions have become a staple of postconflict or post-authoritarian transitions across numerous and diverse contexts’.
Truth commissions have changed considerably since their early establishment and they are no longer regarded as ‘quick-fix’ solutions to overcome complex transitions or as a substitute for criminal justice. These bodies have developed significantly over the past three decades, expanding their mandates and objectives and becomingly increasingly innovative in their processes, thus forming very sophisticated and complex enterprises. Therefore, a large amount of literature has been written on the supposed benefits of truth commissions claiming that they provide victims with an opportunity to tell their story, promote accountability and the rule of law, produce an authoritative account of state crimes, recommend institutional reforms, and promote reconciliation. Since truth commissions in the last two decades have become increasingly popular mechanisms for dealing with the past, the trend in recent research has been towards evaluating the impact and merit of these bodies. One of the most active debates in the research on transitional justice is focused on the problem of how to assess the impact and effectiveness of truth commissions and other transitional justice mechanisms. While there has been some attempt made to identify common guidelines in order to evaluate the effectiveness and efficacy of such bodies, the results of the first empirical studies, both qualitative and quantitative, have so far produced mixed and sometimes contradictory results.