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The right to the truth

In 1995 a former officer in the Argentine military told a journalist he and others had systematically dumped human beings out of military aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first time a participant in the thousands of killings that occurred during the rule of the military junta in Argentina in the 70’s and early 80’s had come forward and confessed. The desperation of the families trying for many years to find the disappeared, the subsequent revelations of their torture and murder began the evolution of the right to the truth.

UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay addressed the Human Rights Council on the right to truth  - ICRC/HEGER, BorisAt its most recent meeting, the Human Rights Council examined global developments in the evolution of the right to the truth and explored ways forward for its better implementation and protection at international, regional and local levels. UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay observed that over time, the right to the truth has extended beyond its initial links to missing and disappeared persons, to encompass gross violations of human rights such as extra judicial executions and torture.

Expert speaker, Rodolfo Mattarollo, international law advisor with the Argentine Ministry of Justice related the story of Argentina’s disappeared and the quest of the families for the truth. He said that both individuals and society had the right to know the truth about past violations. “The right to the truth had great depths”, Mattarollo said.

In the late 1990’s the Truth Commission in South Africa heard testimony from thousands of people about human rights abuses during the apartheid era. The aim of the Commission was to promote reconciliation through seeking the truth. Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa said the right to the truth was fundamental to the transition to democracy, to combating impunity and overcoming a legacy of massive human rights violations.

Another of the expert speakers, Olivier de Frouville, a member of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances told the Council that there is both an individual and collective right to the truth and that the State has a duty to remember.

Dermot Groome, senior trial Attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said the work of the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights and the Human Rights Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina offer several legal bases for the principle of the right to the truth. Furthermore, international criminal law contributed to the larger project of eradicating impunity by “producing reliable findings of fact,” “accumulating large collections of evidence,” and “exhuming mass graves and working with others to reliably identify the mortal remains that are recovered.” Groome foresaw that as the right to the truth continues to develop, international criminal and human rights jurisdictions would overlap in some areas as both are focused on eradicating impunity.

High Commissioner Pillay acknowledged the evolution of the right to truth in international, regional and local law. “The right to the truth implies knowing the full and complete truth about events that transpired,” she said, “their specific circumstances, and who participated in them, including knowing the circumstances in which the violations took place as well as the reasons for them. In cases of enforced disappearance and missing persons, the right also implies the right to know the fate and whereabouts of the victim.”

12 March 2010