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In the age of human rights, states are increasingly seeking truth and reconciliation to address past atrocities and historical injustices. From South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to Canada’s Residential School TRC, we are witnessing a shift from the dominance of retributive transitional justice towards new models of restorative justice. The worldwide popularity of truth commissions has coincided with the resurgence of memory politics and a period of increasing challenge of the nation-state’s hegemony over history.

Truth commissions are also central to the emergent notion of the right to truth defined by the United Nations as the right of the public and individuals to know the truth about gross human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law. The UN frames the right to truth in terms of the importance of “preserving historic memory relating to gross human rights violations through the conservation of archives relating to those violations.”

Book Cover State Building

More than just an opportunity to uncover fact after conflict, truth commissions can also offer restorative power to nations across the globe. Truth Commissions and State Building presents the first comparative study of the role of its kind, illuminating these possibilities.

Examining truth commissions as mechanisms for civic inclusion, identity formation, institutional reform, and nation (re)building in post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies, the book shifts attention towards institutional innovation in African countries, where approximately a third of all commissions have been established. Contributors explore the mandates, methods, outcomes, and legacies of truth commissions, analyzing their place in transitional and restorative justice. Rather than conceptualizing state building as incidental to their work, they present it as an intrinsic, central component. This flagship volume – authored by a stellar cast of policymakers, practitioners, and scholars – brings multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral perspectives to bear on the complex role of truth commissions in addressing transitional justice, historical injustices, and present-day human rights violations.

As more countries, in both the Global South and the North, adopt this model to address historical and contemporary abuses, the dialogue between different sectors of society modelled here will help inform this process – wherever it might occur.


“Every people has the inalienable right to know the truth about past events concerning the perpetration of heinous crimes and about the circumstances and reasons that led, through massive or systematic violations, to the perpetration of those crimes. Full and effective exercise of the right to the truth provides a vital safeguard against the recurrence of violations”


“A people’s knowledge of the history of its oppression is part of its heritage and, as such, must be ensured by appropriate measures in fulfilment of the State’s duty to preserve archives and other evidence concerning violations of human rights and humanitarian law and to facilitate knowledge of those violations. Such measures shall be aimed at preserving the collective memory from extinction and, in particular, at guarding against the development of revisionist and negationist arguments.”

– United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity, U.N. Doc. (2005).