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Truth Commission: The Task to Make Justice

Dr. Salomon Lerner

Presentation by the President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Embassy of Peru in London, United Kingdom, February 15, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen:

After two long decades of political violence and suffering due to an authoritarian regime, Peru is going through a crucial time of democratic restoration. A new government emerged from transparent and free elections, strenuous efforts are being made to eliminate the consequences of the corruption left behind by the dictatorial regime, and a possible amendment to the Constitution, could bring about the mostvisible signs of an attempt to progress towards democracy.

Nonetheless, it is important to point out that these steps will not be sufficient if the process of violence that Peru experienced between 1980and 2000 is not confronted. That process was the crudest expression of former defects in the Peruvian society, defects that still need to be corrected; otherwise, the new search for democracy will be at risk, as has been the case on numerous instances in the history of the country. This violence, besides being an expression of a historical bankruptcy, has left in force in our present and planted in our future, an abundant and deep sense of unease. Once again, it is difficult to think about consolidation of democracy in Peru, without having recognised these wrongs and evils and without proposing a solution.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by a Supreme Decree of the Government of Peru on 4th June, 2001, is the most serious effort made to date to face up to the factors which made violence possible, the consequences of destruction, physical and moral suffering, especially in the most humble and impoverished sectors of Peruvian society. Thus, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to be understood as a unique time for the restoration of justice in our country, in the broad sense of the word; and at the same time, as a presence that will encourage deep reflection on the faults of the Peruvian society, and which will contribute to the consolidation of democracy, lost in Peru on so many occasions in the past.


The wave of violence that ravaged and destroyed Peruvian society started in May 1980 when the Peruvian Communist Party Shining Path, an organisation inspired by Maoism, started the armed struggle in small and poor towns in the Peruvian Andes, calling itself 'a popular movement'. Within a short time, Shining Path spread its activities throughout almost all the national territory. During its first years it gave priority to rural areas of the country. Sabotages, assassinations of authorities, extorting money from the most humble of peasants who were unprotected by the State, punitive campaigns - usually bloody - against Andean communities who resisted them, were some of the methods of violence and terror that were put into practice by the organisation led by Abimael Guzman Reynoso, known as Gonzalo. It was not long before the Peruvian population had to face up to not one, but two subversive movements: The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement also began operating in the early eighties, but largely from urban centres. The dynamics of violence never seem to end in the case of subversive movements. The actions of State police and military forces, are to be added to the list of problems. They did not know how to remain entirely loyal to their mission, which was to defend democracy, that is, to look after the rights of all Peruvian citizens. Instead, on many occasions they fought terrorist organisations with unwarranted methods, infringing the law and carrying out numerous human rights violations.

Where inequality pervades in societies, violence also affects people in different ways. It is important to point out that this took place in Peru in the crudest possible way. The poorest and most humble strata of the country - peasants and shepherds of highland communities, forgotten by the State, ignored, if not, looked down upon by the city-dwelling Peruvians - were the main target of the terrorist organisations, who said they were fighting for them. It is not necessary to mention that those same citizens who were impoverished, hounded and suffered extortion from the Shining Path, were also the main victims of acts of blind repression from the armed and police forces. It was not only the peasants, but also those who suffered from non-overt but tangible racism, which in Peru equates with those who have power, whether they are subversive or State agents. One of the biggest dramas during those years was the cruelty of the Shining Path towards some Amazonian people, the Ashaninka nation, who were submitted to a campaign of slavery and extermination, which according to some experts, can be considered genocide. It must be highlighted that those crimes committed against the most humble of Peruvians are as horrendous as the indifference shown by the rest of the population - Peruvians from middle and high classes, who are educated and who benefited most from modernity - and who watched = that spectacle of human and social degradation.

The result of those twenty years cannot be more eloquent. Around twenty-five thousand lives were lost due to political violence. The methods of arbitrary detention carried out by State forces have left, according to estimates by the Ombudsman's Office, more than six thousand people who have disappeared or have unknown whereabouts. Around six hundred thousand people - mainly from the rural and Andean area - who had to leave their homes and scant belongings in order to look for precarious shelter in the cities where they then lived, and still do, in extreme poverty and, even worse, if possible, sometimes despised by the city dwellers.

Reflecting on the accountable damage, particularly the destruction of public and private assets, and by the deterioration of the productive capacity of the country, this totalled approximately twenty-six million dollars, a figure much higher than the total of our external debt.

These figures, as terrible and absurd as they are, express, nonetheless, only part of the truth. The history that should be told has other sides that the country must dare to look at before confidently heading towards a lasting democracy. Behind each one of the twenty-five thousand or more dead, there is not only a memory and dignity to restore, but also hurt parents, lonely spouses and cases of people in state of neglect, children deprived from the irreplaceable presence of their fathers or mothers, destroyed families and crushed communities by forced migration.

On the other hand, a great number of those who survived violence are also direct victims of the tragedy: sacking and plundering, sexual violence, the memory of those loved ones who were assassinated with absurd brutality. All this has left Peru with a deep spiritual wound, the result of many affronts which start, chiefly because of the lack of knowledge about these crimes.

The Task and Mission

The main task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is precisely to make known and have admitted what has left in silence or ignored. The legal and moral mandate which we have received from Peruvian society is "to clarify the process, the acts and responsibilities of terrorist violence and human rights violations carried out from May 1980 to November 2000, which are attributable to both terrorist organisations and State agents, as well as to propose initiatives to strengthen peace and harmony amongst Peruvians.

It is an ample and complex mandate, and it is worthwhile reflecting on its elements, which determine the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The violence to which Peru was subjected had specific agents which carried out specific acts. However, we must recognise, that this did not emerge from nothing, but was made possible mainly due to particular social, cultural, economic, political, institutional and varied conditions. Therefore, to talk publicly about the truth implies a clarification of the great social processes that led to it. This requires studies of numerous and secular faults within Peruvian society, which are not yet overcome, deficiencies that are not only due to poverty or political instability, but are deeply rooted in marginalisation, racism, disdain to different, that is, linked to the conflictive way in which Peruvians relate.

Our Commission devotes a specific working area to this problem, which is called 'National Process of Political Violence', and which will be responsible for organising studies leading to wide interpretation of the Peruvian reality with regard to the tragedy experienced. That interpretation must bring about deep reflection around the whole country and encourage a serious collective aim in order to establish and amend our faults to accomplish a more just way of life.

Although it is fundamental to understand the historical process that underlie the problem we are facing, the core of the mandate received, is the duty of clarifying the acts of violence and corresponding = responsibilities. It is impossible for the Commission to forget that all that we regret today was the result of very concrete actions carried out by persons with specific identities against the citizens with a face, a name, a family, projects with a life cut short. Therefore, we consider it essential to get back those names, actions and dates in order to give back some of the dignity robbed from the victims, and to help the Peruvian justice, to put an end to impunity of the tyrants. We know that a tragedy, such as the one Peru has experienced, cannot be reduced to a catalogue of cold data. The Commission wishes to offer the country a moral account of what happened. Its investigations will, therefore, establish the context in which the actions took place, the options selected by those who carried them out and the damage caused to those who experienced them.

With regard to the aforementioned, the Commission has created another area which will be responsible for the clarification of facts. This working area will aim at clarifying the truth reliably and respectfully, collecting witness statements and testimonies of the victims, and carrying out multidisciplinary investigations in order to contribute to the restoration of the social background, and the moral element of the history of the most serious violations. The damage caused has a clear individual expression, but there is also the collective damage. The topic of Clarification of Acts will appeal to methods of social sciences investigation to understand the communal dimension of the drama, for a more comprehensive justice for those who suffered from the circumstances.

I would like to mention at this point, the central importance that the Commission gives to the testimonies of those who suffered from human rights violations. We see our Commission as a body which focuses on the victims: the truth that we are looking for will come from them and that is why their testimony is the focus of our attention. We consider that the attitude of compassionate and respectful listening, that we will offer the bereaved, is already a form of providing justice for those who were not heard, and have suffered in solitude for years.

Our mandate is to propose initiatives destined to strengthen peace and harmony amongst Peruvians. That is, once the causes for violence are understood and the acts that took place, and those responsible are exposed, the country will be able to leave behind the bitter process experienced, and start a new era of justice and mutual respect.

Apart from ending the silence and fighting impunity, it is necessary that the country becomes responsible for repairing the damage caused to the victims. The types of damage are numerous. Some are obvious. Others, less obvious, must be identified through a patient investigation.

A third working topic of the Commission, called Area of Consequences, Restoration and Reconciliation is responsible for assessing the consequences of violence in national life. To investigate the consequences means not only to find out the number and types of physical and material damage, but also to get inside the drama which took place in order to appraise the numerous dimensions, including the moral damage of having your dignity taken away, as well as the severe psychological traumas, and the limitations in the intellectual and emotional life of a population who were exposed to unprecedented and absurd cruelty.

A fuller and more exact knowledge of the consequences will allow us to draw up proposals for the restoration of damages, another duty of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These acts of restoration will not necessarily be of an individual nature or monetary, but can be applied through co-operation for development, in opportunities for youngsters from the affected areas, to help the study, in work for collective benefit and, equally important, in ways to ennoble a person, which means to return, or give for the first time, proof of respect and solidarity to those areas punished by violence, something returned to them, which the country owes them.

The recognition of truth and giving dignity to the victims will put us on the path of a possible national, lasting and genuine reconciliation. This is not possible if based on distrust, disdain or mutual ignorance. A reconciliation such as that proposed to the country by the Truth Commission must settle on a new manner for relations amongst Peruvians. Firstly, it supposes that the entire population should feel involved in the task of a collective examination of what we are going to carry out.

The fourth area of the Commission, that of Communication and Education, points out this last objective: to promote the widest participation of the Peruvian people in the tasks of the Commission, to make a nationwide and sincere reflection feasible, to translate our proposals for improvement of society into educative programmes to make for more tolerant and respectful citizens, and more aware of their own rights, as well as those of others.

Finally, the fulfilment of our mandate to assist the victims and strengthen wide collective reflection, is completed with a fifth area, that of the Public Hearings or Audiences, which will organise activities where the members of the Commission will directly receive the testimony of the victims of violence. Once again, it must be pointed out that the assistance that we will offer, will be a way towards achieving justice in a country where the norm has historically been the silencing of the poorest and most humble.

A Moral Commitment

The mandate that we received, even though succinctly and clearly expressed in the Supreme Decree which brought the Commission into being, includes numerous dimensions and is guided mainly by fundamental moral imperatives. This is the way the Commission interprets it, and that is the way I have attempted to express in this presentation. However, our working group wishes to highlight the main points of that mandate in some fundamental commitments publicly declared and that, we believe, accurately depicts the complex mission entrusted to us.

Firstly, the Commission commits itself to create, through the investigation and the unveiling of the truth, a collective, sincere and challenging reflection. Our aim is to promote the country accept its collective responsibilities, to recognise the faults of its past, to try to understand this and to commit itself to amending it with concrete and tangible actions. It will also attempt a transformation of our own conscience in order to replace distance and hatred by bonds of solidarity and mutual respect. We are deeply convinced that those actions, and that moral transformation of the country will be the only guarantee in order for these events not to be repeated.

Secondly, the Commission offers the country an opportunity to search for truth appealing to the whole of the country and all its society. This process will only make sense and will only become successful if it becomes a real collective work and a point for common learning. The Commission hopes to be a faithful spokesperson for Peruvian society in violence and human rights violation issues, and expects the results of its work to be received by the Nation as the fruit of a task to be shared by all citizens.

Thirdly, the members of the Commission commit themselves to hand in an accurate list of the acts of human rights violations carried out in the country between 1980 and 2000 within the context of terrorist violence, and the response of the State. When offering a list, we are not thinking of a simple catalogue of acts, dates, names and places, but an account that reflects the process within its true social, historical and moral complexity and that can lead towards a reflection on the events. This account will be prepared with complete impartiality and with rigorous methods of investigation and interpretation and will attempt to collect the voice of the victims silenced during the past decades.

Fourthly, we consider that a further fundamental contribution of the Commission will be to promote, through collective and severe examining of one's conscience, a firm commitment with democracy and with a form of higher justice. I refer to justice based on equality amongst all Peruvians and built on an unrestricted respect for life and human dignity. Only that wide and profound justice, will allow a genuine and lasting process of national reconciliation.

I have briefly described the tasks assigned to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the way in which we interpret that mandate, and the principles with which we try to fulfil our duty. In order to be able to carry out our task, the members of the Truth Commission consider indispensable to be imbued with absolute conviction of its need. Truth commissions are not judicial bodies, but mainly moral ones. Their work is not always agreeable to all the members of the society. Therefore, this conviction and commitment to justice is so necessary.

We conceive of our task as an essential experience of collective introspection and we are convinced, as I have pointed out earlier, that it is a prior stage which is inevitable for the resumption and restoration of our political life and the strengthening of democracy amongst us. However, we are aware that it is not easy to carry out such a severe process of collective examination of the type that we are preparing to do. The past that we are to bring to light, the memories that we will have to tackle and the legal responsibilities are exhausting, and it is only natural that either a person, or the community will naturally resist involvement in such a problem. It is entirely possible, when firmly footed in practical politics, to exclude ourselves from carrying out this examination of our consciences.

No doubt, there will be those who would consider that the nation's easiest way forward would be that of resorting to the simple expedient of forgetting the past. The reasoning behind this being that the peace and political stability of the country require to make progress along less troublesome routes than those that would manifest themselves if we have to clarify past events.

Nonetheless, we should always bear in mind that, that which is possible in politics, can be observed from a greater height, with greater detachment, a truly impossible moral level, and this is the case here. The first ethical conviction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, without which all subsequent efforts would be useless, lies within the absolutely necessary nature of its mission for the future of our community.

Why is it necessary to submit to this examination? Because the life of a society cannot be understood in the same way as the mechanism of a clock or the movement of the stars, which in both cases is governed by causal, necessary, determining and impersonal laws. In other words, it cannot be explained in terms of mere natural acts. On the contrary, human existence and its cultural and historical dimensions are in the 'realm of freedom' and, consequently, of responsibility. Human coexistence is above all, the fabric of relationships amongst real people endowed with a singular history, where the acts of an immutable past, the worries of the present and the illusions and projects of the future link them inextricably. Only when taking individual and collective human life to a moral and responsible dimension, is it possible to address to each other as individual people, to feel recognised by our neighbours and see in them the necessary complement to our personal existence, and not as rivals who restrict our desires and interests.

Those opportunities of human relationships were severely damaged in Peru during the last decades. Ultimately, the ethical foundation of our collective existence was undermined by the years of violence we went through. Montesquieu said that if the life of the citizens was governed by the laws, the life of the individuals was governed by traditions. That is, though, moral and spiritual values transmitted by cultural traditions. Likewise, if legality was undermined and with it, responsible political action of citizens collapsed, the said crisis would cause the eventual collapse of values and traditional morality. In Peru, law became lack of meaning. The daily spectacle of death and impunity, the proliferation of statements in favour of the blind use of force as a manner of social transformation and restoration of order, the feeling that the only form of staying alive was to lock ourselves behind bars and padlocks in our own houses, indifferent to the thunder of destruction around us, gradually settled into a new and impoverished form of life in community. In this way, we were left with norms that were reduced to simple statements and found themselves divorced from the social life they were meant to give direction. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the grave degradation of our civil and political life over the last years was a reflection, and a deplorable repercussion of violence, translated into social lethargy, a form of sluggishness, in resignation to authoritarianism as a tolerable form of life.

The ethical foundation weakened over the last decades should be recovered. This will not happen if the country is reluctant to face up the truth of its recent history. In a society battered by violence, the relationships amongst its people will be able to translate into creative links, human links, only when past events are recognised, the dignity of the victims is restored, when compassion and repentance is expressed towards those affected and justice is executed, essential requirement for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a moral imperative, a requirement of Peruvian society as a community of human beings, which leads us to say that this task, which has been assigned to us, is absolutely necessary.

Besides absolute moral necessity, the clarification of the past also constitutes an essential element for the political regeneration of the country. The supposed political realism of those who recommend forgetting the past as a practical decision, is really only gullible, or superficial reconciliation, failing to tackle real and great problems we have to resolve. There is no lasting democracy where people do not trust in the general validity and application of laws and a minimum level of equality in our political system. How can we build up a society with fully-fledged citizens if the search for the truth is not respected; if we implicitly tell a wide sector of Peruvians that their sufferings, the loss of their beloved, the enormous deprivation which they face as a result of the process of political violence, in short, their painful wounds, are irrelevant to the political future of the country.

The building of democracy and injecting humanity and care into Peruvian life make this our key mission, and an absolute need. We wish that the international community understand this desire as much as the citizens of our country.

In a world where the reason of State as the justification of all forms of authority is in question, in an era when humanity has been disillusioned with bloody utopias of uprising against order and order against uprising, in a historical moment when democracy and human rights have conquered the centre of our historical imagination and our moral sensitivity, I am sure that such a task will call for the understanding and sympathy of the international community. Your presence here confirms this belief and for that I am deeply grateful. With your support, that is, of the great western democracies, Peruvians will have greater possibilities of learning suitable lessons from a bitter past and from them, to build this time, a more just, peaceful and humane society.