CAAS Conference, Montréal

Balancing Justice and Reconciliation


Mellissa Levin, University of Toronto
Reconciliation, decolonization and re-naming practices in South Africa’s capital city.

Sylvia Bawa, York University
Decolonizing Emotion in Truth Commissions in Post-Colonial Africa.

Adebisi Alade and Bonny Ibhawoh, McMaster University
Truth Commission, the State, and Victims’ ‘Right to Truth’ in Nigeria.

Aboubacar Dakuyo, University of Ottawa
Truth, Justice and National Reconciliation: The Dilemmas of Transitional Justice in Burkina Faso.”

Jennifer Wallace, McMaster University
Memorializing the Marginalized: An Examination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Influence on Private-led Heritage Projects in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Panel Abstract

In the past three decades, Africa has witnessed a proliferation of truth commissions. Across Africa, truth commissions have been deployed both as mechanisms of post-conflict transitional justice (South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia) and democratic transitional justice (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Burkina Faso and Gambia). Although they differ in composition and purpose, the core mandate of truth commissions is to investigate human rights violations and provide public accounting of the causes, patterns and consequences of political violations. A common goal is to recover the truth about rights violations and narrate national histories in the context of state (re)building. Such truth commissions represent the hope that collective acknowledgment of past atrocities, reflection and repair can help build less violent, and more just and inclusive societies. However, truth commissions have been critiqued for serving more to legitimize statist political agendas than promoting victim-centered justice. Critics have described the politicized performative truth-seeking process as re-victimizing and provocative rather than healing. Papers in this roundtable panel will explore the tensions between “objective” truth-seeking, national reconciliation and victim-centered justice in truth commissions as peacebuilding and state (re)building processes.

Reconciliation, decolonization and re-naming practices in South Africa’s capital city

Mellissa Levin

University of Toronto


The TRC in South Africa emerged from an international environment that witnessed the collapse of authoritarianism and the impression of transitions to democracy. South Africa’s transformation was generalized to human rights strategy of restorative justice articulated through nation-building commissions of truth and reconciliation. But South Africa’s history suggest that white, racist authoritarianism was but one expression of the colonial character of the South African apartheid state. In this sense, the vocabulary of truth and reconciliation misrecognizes the imperative of a project of decolonization as democratization. As such, the TRC, as a new institution, does not manage to upset or unsettle coloniality in the post-apartheid era. This is evidenced in racialized and gendered wealth and poverty, distribution of land and property and in the retention of spatialized segregation, among others. The resilience of conflicting historical narratives of apartheid and colonialism signals the TRC’s incapacity to lay the framework for its ethical memorialization. An analysis of the attempts to rename South Africa’s capital and some of its streets between 2000 and 2016 testifies to the resilience of colonially produced institutional practices and the bureaucratization of processes of memorialization. The analysis shows the limits of democratization and reconciliation in the absence of decolonization.

Decolonizing Emotion in Truth Commissions in Post-Colonial Africa

Sylvia Bawa

York University, Canada


Truth and Reconciliation commissions have contributed substantially to expanding conceptions of justice in attempts to hold states accountable for historical wrongs and atrocities. While the effectiveness of Truth commissions in guaranteeing appropriate restitutions is debatable, there is little doubt that they provide a space for a form of justice dispensation. This paper goes beyond a euro-colonial conception of justice to examine how Truth commissions in Africa mirror indigenous mechanisms of justice dispensation where emotion plays a crucial role in public sympathy, memorialization and reconciliation as part of restorative justice processes. Drawing on victim/participant testimonies and final reports of Truth commissions in Africa, this paper will analyze how these transnational spaces blur gendered lines in the acceptance, expression and utility of emotion in public spaces. How might we (a) engage emotion as a methodological tool to deconstruct gender performativity in transnational justice seeking processes, (b) use truth commission models to (re)claim indigenous mechanisms of restorative justice in postcolonial Africa?

Truth Commission, the State, and Victims’ “Right to Truth” in Nigeria

Adebisi Alade and Bonny Ibhawoh

McMaster University, Canada


Based on lessons from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, most national TRCs in Africa adopted public hearing of testimonies as a fundamental component of their transitional justice process. Although this strategy has since been hailed by observers for its practicality in promoting victim-centered justice, little attention has, however, been paid to critiquing the popular support that often greet the creation of these commissions, limits of their state-given investigative power (for summoning wrongdoers to public hearings), and how such powers shaped their mandate of truth-seeking. Drawing on the unofficial report of the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigations commission (HRVIC) and other secondary sources, this study examines how the immediate post-military regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo used Justice Chukwudifu Oputa-led Commission for credibility in the era of democratic transition while denying the panel a compulsive power to bring accused wrongdoers to hearings. Given the indispensability of victim/wrongdoer’s stories to repairing broken relationships, healing, and reconstructing collective memory of past atrocities for nation-building, the blatant disregard of the Tribunal of Inquiry by three Nigerian military junta accused of wrongdoings provides a useful case study for interrogating, not only the challenges of truth-seeking in post-military regimes, but also the conflicting role of states in genuine nation-building effort through restorative justice. While the judiciary under President Obasanjo’s democratic regime shielded these accused wrongdoers from testifying, the presidency cited the final Supreme Court injunction (which prohibited the implementation of the Panel’s recommendation) as basis for withholding the official report from the public. Within this politicized performative truth-seeking context, this study provides insight into Nigeria’s TRC’s failure to provide neither truth nor reconciliation for state (re)building while also emphasizing the role of the judiciary in guaranteeing victims’ rights to truth democratic governments.

Truth, Justice and National Reconciliation: The Dilemmas of Transitional Justice in Burkina Faso

Aboubacar Dakuyo

University of Ottawa


Following the popular uprising of October 30 and 31, 2014 that forced President Blaise Compaoré to resign, a transitional justice process was initiated in Burkina Faso. Mechanisms adopted in this process include a Commission for National Reconciliation and Reforms (CRNR) with a Subcommittee for Truth, Justice and National Reconciliation, and a High Council for Reconciliation and National Unity. This study analyzes the work of these institutions by considering them as to be situated in the transitional and post-transitional context marked by a “revolutionary” dynamic that favors of a complete break with the previous political order and a political realism that privileges the political interests of the state. The study argues that these political conditions have complexify the search of truth, justice and reconciliation, most often, to the detriment of the rights of victims. In doing so, the study contends that these institutions are likely to miss the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the consolidation of the rule of law and democracy in the country.

Memorializing the Marginalized: An Examination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Influence on Private-led Heritage Projects in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Wallace, Jennifer

McMaster University


The responsibility for facilitating reconciliation in post-conflict societies is shifting from state commissions to the heritage sector, and South Africa is leading this trend in many respects. To investigate this transition in reconciliation practices, this paper explores South African private sector museums as innovators in representing human rights history through the study of the District Six Museum and Apartheid Museum. This paper reveals that South African state-led initiatives frequently face similar challenges that concerned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, leading to the exclusion of marginalized groups and a simplification of the varied experiences under apartheid. However, private-led heritage projects tend to have greater opportunities for presenting a range of experiences in the immediate post-apartheid era. This paper suggests that private museums, such as the Apartheid Museum and District Six Museum, provide useful models for how heritage projects can operate as extensions of official truth commissions, rather that reiterations of the national narrative. South Africa’s evolving heritage sector is acting as an agent of reconciliation and is developing new means of supporting symbolic reparation beyond the confines of state commissions. These immersive and community-based memorialization practices are significant examples for other countries emerging from conflict to use in confronting their past.