Does Pakistan Need A Truth And Reconciliation Commission? – OpEd


The recent review of the Z.A. Bhutto case by Pakistan’s Supreme Court cast light on the miscarriage of justice that occurred 44 years ago. It made headway toward truth and fairness, and restored some faith in the legal system.

However, the court did not investigate the involvement of powerful institutions and individuals in the sham trial, but it acknowledged that Bhutto did not receive justice. Further investigation could have revealed startling truths, challenged popular narratives, or produced fresh evidence.

Can the Bhutto case inspire nationwide truth and reconciliation, and can a divided country heal without political reconciliation? Unfortunately, the short answer to these questions is currently negative.

Arguably, compromised democratic institutions and lack of accountability have led Pakistan to a tipping point. The government and its supporters refuse to consider the opposition’s demand to overturn the tainted election results. And the opposition is resolute in broadening the matter and involving foreign governments and institutions. The political consensus is missing for a fruitful truth, reconciliation, and healing effort in this hostile environment.

Globally, the structure, design, outcomes, and impact of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) have sparked debate. Former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff stated the challenges succinctly: “Justice in itself is not a problematic objective, but whether the attainment of justice always contributes to reconciliation is anything but evident. Truth, too, is a good thing, but as the African proverb reminds us, truth is not always good to say.” 

The other questions raised on TRCs are: What would be the mandate, and what kind of evidence would it collect? What are the challenges and benefits of establishing it, and what are some of its potential outcomes and effects? Who should be involved in structuring and designing it, and how should it be done?

Despite the challenges, over 40 countries, such as East Timor, Peru, Guatemala, and Rwanda, set up TRCs patterned on the one pioneered by President Mandela and Bishop Tutu after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. TRCs investigated the truth about human rights abuses, torture, forced disappearances and deaths, violent dispossession, ethnic genocide, and the genocide of indigenous populations during colonization.

They consisted of independent commissioners representing all parties involved in conflicts. Commissioners sought truth in four aspects: factual or forensic truth, personal or narrative truth, social or dialogue truth, and healing or restorative truth. The shared goal was truth before reconciliation. 

Consultations continue in some countries over the formation of TRCs. Tutu explained the mission: “Forgiveness is nothing less than a way we heal the world. We heal the world by healing every one of our hearts. The process is simple, but it is not easy.”

The net results from TRCs worldwide have been positive. For example, the South African TRC helped propel the country safely into a modern, democratic era despite criticism over the lack of punishment and accountability for over 21,000 killings during the Apartheid era.

In contrast, Brazil decided on a TRC after many years of deliberation to address the period of brutal military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. The TRC heard emotional testimony from victims and named and shamed perpetrators. However, Amnesty Laws protected those involved in state-sanctioned disappearances and executions from punishment.

Countries found that TRCs had value in facing the past, acknowledging wrongs, and a national reckoning inclusive of all stakeholders, victims, survivors, and their families and friends. Commissioners heard people voice their pain and discontentment in public hearings. In some cases, the final reports issued by commissions led to new legislation on key policy areas and improved human rights.

If conditions allow it, a TRC in Pakistan could be beneficial to uncover inconvenient truths or present additional evidence that contradicts long-standing beliefs and prevailing narratives. Such a commission would have the mandate to investigate historical injustices, acts of violence, military interventions, abuse of power, and the cycles of tainted elections.   

The commission would recognize collective complicity and ongoing inequality, which can lead to a national dismantling of the country’s foundation of repression and injustice. To be effective, it should focus on reforming institutions and improving accountability without being seen as a vehicle for vindictiveness and selective retribution. Political partisanship and establishment opposition are likely obstacles to establishing a commission.

By confronting the past with honesty and empathy, Pakistani society can heal deep-seated wounds and move towards a future built on mutual understanding and respect. It could be a way to avoid further division, violence, and deaths. Without political healing, Pakistan risks deepening fault lines and spiraling into more internal conflict. 

This article was published by The Friday Times

Saad Hafiz

Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected].

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