INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR THE RIGHT TO THE TRUTH
CONCERNING GROSS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND FOR THE DIGNITY OF VICTIMS
[24th March 2023]
“The truth is an empowering and healing force.
We embrace it for the past, the present and the future”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
Every year, on the 24th of March, the world celebrates the UN International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. The United Nations set aside this day in 2010 as recognition and in memory of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador who was assassinated by a repressive government on the steps of the Cathedral on 24 March 1980 for his work denouncing violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable populations.
The Purpose of the Day
The purpose of the Day is to honour the memory of victims of serious and systematic human rights violations and the importance of the right to truth and justice and to tribute to those who have dedicated their lives to the fight of promoting and protecting the human rights of all and to those who have lost it in their efforts.
United Nations Resolutions
1. Resolution Adopted by the Human Rights Council on the Right to the Truth: 1 October 2009
The preamble to this resolution 12-12 attached above recognised the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and that parties to conflict shall search for the persons who have been reported missing, as soon as circumstances permit.
It took into account Commission on Human Rights previous resolutions of 20 April 2005, 27 November 2006,18 September 2008 on the right to the truth and also a Council resolution of 2009 on forensic genetics and human rights, in which the Council recognized the importance of the utilization of forensic genetics to deal with the issue of impunity within the framework of investigations related to gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law,
2. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the Right to the truth: 18 December 2013
This resolution cited the above resolution and also the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Geneva Conventions and other relevant instruments of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as well as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The resolution also took into account Human Rights Council resolution welcoming the creation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence.
The resolution also referred to the fact that the right to the truth had also been emphasised in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 [link] [coming into force in 2010] It refers in particular to article 24, paragraphs 2 and 3, which set out the right of victims to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance and the rights to know the progress and the results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person. It also sets forth State party obligations to take appropriate measures in this regard.
Importance of these UN resolutions
What was important in these Resolutions was the recognition of:
- in cases of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law, the need for an interrelationship between the right to the truth and the right to access to justice;
- the right to obtain effective remedy and reparation and other relevant human rights;
- importance of States’ obligations to provide appropriate and effective mechanisms for society as a whole and, in particular, for relatives of the victims, to know the truth regarding gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law;
- the importance of preserving historic memory related to gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law through the conservation of archives and other documents related to those violations;
- the fundamental role of civil society, through its engagement, advocacy and participation in decision-making processes, in promoting and achieving respect for the right to the truth;
- the importance of respecting and ensuring the right to the truth so as to contribute to ending impunity and to promote and protect human rights;
- the need to establish judicial mechanisms and non-judicial mechanisms [such as truth and reconciliation commissions that complement the justice system] to investigate violations of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law.
- the publication of the reports and decisions of these bodies and that States should disseminate, implement and monitor the implementation of the recommendations of non-judicial mechanisms and also provide information on compliance with the decisions of judicial mechanisms.
National Peace and Reconciliation Commission
A constitutional body
The Constitution of Zimbabwe [section 251(1)] established the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission [NPRC]. The functions of the NPRC are listed in section 253 and include: to ensure post-conflict justice, healing and reconciliation; to bring about national reconciliation by encouraging people to tell the truth about the past and facilitating the making of amends and the provision of justice; to develop programmes to ensure that persons subjected to persecution, torture and other forms of abuse receive rehabilitative treatment and support. It is one of five independent constitutional commissions, but unlike the other four commissions, which are permanent, the NPRC has a strictly limited timeframe. Section 251(1) states ““For a period of ten years after the effective date there is a commission to be known as the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission …”. The effective date for this section of the Constitution was 22nd August 2013 – which means that the period of ten years would expire on 21st August 2023.
Delay in enacting supporting NPRC Act
Although members of the NPRC were appointed in February 2016, it took nearly five years before the NPRC was institutionalised by the enactment of the enabling National Peace and Reconciliation Commission Act, which came into force on 5th January 2018. This Act set up the administrative and financial framework of the Commission. Although Veritas pointed out at the time there was much that the Commissioners could do according to powers laid out in the Constitution, until the NPRC Act came into force there was little done. There was a two and a halt year delay in appointing Commissioners and then they waited another two years for the NPRC Act, there were only five years and a half years to complete an enormous task.
Litigation about NPRC ten-year lifespan
In 2019, an attempt was made to address this issue of the lifespan of the NPRC through a High Court application by an opposition Member of Parliament, Concilia Chinanzvavana. Although the High Court seemed to juggle a way around the apparently intractable plain wording of section 251(1), and declared that the ten-year period would conclude on 4th January 2028 on the basis that the NPRC Act had become law on 5th January 2018 and until then the NPRC had not able to function effectively. The Government appealed to the Supreme Court and got the judgment reversed.
What Happens if the NPRC Ends in August 2023?
Effectively, the NPRC’s life-span ends in a few months and the question that must be answered is whether or not the NPRC has come anywhere near executing the constitutional task for which it was established.?
Has there been enough truth and healing?
Or is there still work to be done regarding past events such as the liberation war, Gukurahundi massacres, Operation Murambatsvina, 2008 post-election violence, 2018 post-election violence and the 2019 ZCTU protests yet the NPRC has already run its course. One thing remains constant – there is need for truth-telling, for healing, justice and closure.
A suggested answer by Veritas
The NPRC’s life-span as a constitutional Commission may come to an end on 21st August 2023 but it would be possible to pass an Act of Parliament continuing it as a statutory body or replacing it with a new body to perform the same functions.
If that is done, the mandate of the NPRC’s successor should be revised to make it more effective. It should get more resources. Human rights organisations and civil society should have more say in electing or appointing its members. Advice should be sought from those who have served on the NPRC, from its staff and advisers, and from the National Transitional Justice Working Group. Regard should also be paid to the literature on the subject that has accumulated since 2013. In any interregnum between the end of the present NPRC and its replacement by an independent statutory body with similar functions, the functions of NPRC could be transferred to Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the remainder of this year’s allocated funding transferred to the ZHRC.