Right to truth concerning human rights violations & dignity for the victims; a reality or myth?

In the spirit of promoting the ‘Truth’, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) nine years ago in 2010 proclaimed 24 March as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. This date was chosen because it was the day on which Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 for his active engagement in denouncing violations of the human rights of highly vulnerable individuals. The purpose of the Day is to: Honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations and promote the importance of the right to truth and justice; Pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in, the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all; Recognize, in particular, the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, of El Salvador, for defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.

This principle of the Right to Truth had already been well captured in the LRA-Government of Uganda 2008 Juba Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation, where truth-telling is considered an essential component of the transitional justice process. Under the Reconciliation Section, the Agreement states that ‘truth-seeking and truth-telling processes and mechanisms shall be promoted’. Furthermore, the Agreement states that victims ‘have the right of access to relevant information about their experiences,’ while their ‘dignity, privacy and security’ are to be protected as they participate in such accountability and reconciliation proceedings”. The Juba agreement itself no doubt in part also reflected a 2006 study by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which concluded that right to truth about human rights violations and serious violations human rights law is an inalienable and autonomous right, linked to the duty and obligation of the state to protect and guarantee human rights, to conduct effective investigation and to guarantee effective remedy and reparations.  How far then, has Uganda gone over the last decade in its efforts and initiatives towards the fulfilment, enjoyment and realisation of the Right to Truth? What are some of questions still to be answered?   The UN’s 2006 study affirms that the right to truth implies knowing the full and complete truth as to the events that transpired, their specific circumstances, including who participated in them and their reasons. Participants in the Refugee Law Project’s 2014 National Reconciliation & Transitional Justice (NRTJ) Audit highlighted some of the dilemmas this might raise for key actors, including Government, Parliament and alleged perpetrators as well as community members. These include: the question of genuine governmental support and political will; potential backlash against those admitting to past wrongdoing; the risk that process might be used for pursuing political aims; the manipulation of truth-telling processes to pursue political vendettas; and arousing negative emotions from victims and their families. Bearing in mind all these likely impending hurdles along the way, how sure are the victims that they will get their Right to the Truth from the majority of the perpetrators who have never been held to account? If so, when will this happen? And for how long shall these acts of impunity continue? This raises questions about the role of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), a permanent human rights body established after the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations and Abuses from 1962 to 26 January 1986. Instituted by the NRM after taking power in 1986, the UHRC now has national and regional offices. But do these reach to victims deep down in the villages? When and where will they hear, tell or report the truth about what happened? A memory dialogue participant in Morungatuny sub-county in Amuria district during a memory dialogue conducted by Refugee Law Project (RLP) in 2018, expressed his frustration with the communities inability to tell the truth or be able to know the truth when he said; “We would have loved to have a Desk, Focal person or small Office here where we can come when we feel okay (mentally), and report what we know, and they take our narratives about the truth of the atrocities during the war and also be able to access information about the conflict”.   So where do we place such vulnerable persons who are also a majority? Similarly, critical questions emerge such as what happens to truth-telling in the absence of adequate protection of those taking part in the process? In that regard a 2009 report on the Right to the Truth (still by Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) identified best practices for effective implementation of this right, in particular practices relating to archives and records concerning gross violations of human rights, and programmes on the protection of witnesses and other persons involved in trials connected with such violations. The question now is; how do we address any obstacles to full implementation of these identified best practices? How do we ensure non-repetition of the more than 30 unexplained office break-ins that since 2008 have targeted non-governmental organisations leading the fight against rights violations? To date, police have not come up with a conclusive comprehensive report on the cases as raised by activists and participants during the just recently concluded sixth Human Rights Defenders Forum in Kampala. Will Parliament heed to the HRD’s request for the drafting of a law that protects them in the country? Building on the NRTJ Audit, and with generous funding from the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), Refugee Law Project (RLP) has in recent years conducted a series of Memory Dialogues at the community level in—Ayuu Alali, Obalanga, Mucwini, Morungatuny, Barlonyo, Kinyabisiki. Participants across these different locations include the relatives of victims of massacres, enforced disappearances, missing persons, abducted children, and victims of torture, and they continue to ask questions regarding the whereabouts of brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, relatives and in-laws. These sessions, which in some respects model mini truth-telling initiatives, engage affected community members in local processes that complement and can even inspire reconciliation processes at the regional and national level. They also lead to in-depth documentation of victim/survivor-led accounts of specific conflict experiences as a critical means of preventing future lies and further abuse. With some successes already visible in the right direction, and with the TJ policy somewhere within the premises of the Parliament of Uganda, isn’t it high time Government, Cabinet and Parliament realised that the UN supported Right to Truth is not a privilege but a fundamental inalienable right that Ugandans like anyone else around the world should enjoy? Can Cabinet and subsequently, Parliament take that leap of faith in the positive power of truth-telling? Can they expedite the enactment of Uganda’s Transitional Justice Policy to provide a framework for action ensuring Right to Truth becomes a reality rather than developing into a myth? It is only once we have answers to all these questions that we can confidently say we are on the ‘Right track to the Right to Truth’.

Odokonyero Joel Innocent, TJ Practitioner and Ethnographer is the Research and Advocacy Officer for Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance Programme with the Refugee Law project, School of Law, Makerere University. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Twitter: @odokonyero_joel

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