Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Restorative Justice in Response to Abuse and Violence

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Truth Commissions, Restorative Justice, Human Rights Abuse, Advocacy, Transitional Contexts, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission


This chapter examines the claim that truth commissions can serve as institutions Of restorative justice. This potential application of restorative justice has received surprisingly little attention from restorative justice scholars and advocates, an unfortunate oversight given the significant contribution restorative justice stands able to make in these contexts. Omitting consideration of this application from the scholarship is also disappointing for restorative justice advocates as these contexts can reveal, in a poignant fashion, significant truths about the nature and demands of justice that might support and enhance restorative justice theory and practice. This chapter aims to bring the application of restorative justice in response to gross human rights abuse into the main of restorative justice thinking in order that these insights can be more fully recognized and explored.

The chapter first reviews the ways in which restorative justice is associated with truth commissions. What do advocates mean when they claim truth commissions are restorative institutions? The chapter then explores the appropriateness and potential of restorative justice as a response to gross human rights abuse. It concludes with a consideration of the implications a restorative justice approach would have for the design, structure and practice of truth commissions. In doing so attention is paid to the example offered by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This examination of the possibility and potential of restorative justice to inform the development and practice of truth commissions is significant for those faced with the task of responding to gross human rights abuse and violence. This is a task most familiar in the process of transition and recovery from repressive rule or internal conflict. It is not, however, the preserve of transitional contexts. Many established and stable democracies face similar challenges. This consideration of the potential of truth commissions to be restorative institutions is thus of great importance for a range of contexts faced with the challenge of dealing with abusive and violent pasts.