The Truth is Not Always as It Seems, and What That Means for Reconciliation and Justice

| November 2018
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A visitor to El Valle de Los Caidos, sporting a flag of Spain under Francisco Franco. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


Editors’ note: This is the third post in a series discussing current events related to transitional justice and reconciliation. To read the first post, click here. To read the second post, click here.


In 1981, María Mercedes Bueno of Spain gave birth to what she believed was a stillborn child. Twenty-eight years later, she learned that her child was alive and had been given to a pro-Franco family after birth.1 Encompassing the demands of many Spanish mothers affected by the “stolen children” scandal, Bueno says, “We’re asking for truth and justice. It’s all we have left.”2

In simple yet powerful terms, Bueno is calling for the Spanish government to fulfill her rights to truth and restitution. While she clearly links the concepts of truth and justice together, in reality their relationship is messy. This piece will explore what we define as “truth,” the “right to truth,” and whether such a right necessarily leads to a “right to restitution.” As with the first two installments in this series, it will do so using the cases of The Gambia, Spain, and South Korea.

While most of us have an instinctive grasp of what we believe to be truth, this concept, like others that we take for granted, is much more complex. The report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission highlights four different types of truth: Factual truth denotes findings from scientific and impartial methods.3 Personal truth is the experiences shared by individuals.4 Social or dialogue truth is “the truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion, and debate.”5 Finally, healing truth reconciles facts within “the context of human relationships”6 to establish a societal narrative that acknowledges the victimization while ensuring that the abuse does not reoccur.

While this holistic approach is a good step toward reconciliation and justice, the report fails to discuss what happens when these four types of truth conflict with one another. For instance, writing for the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland describes an incident in Spain where “a trio of elderly women broke into pro-Franco songs as the bones of long-dead, but still-hated, republicans were lowered into the ground.”7 This anecdote shows not only a clear dissonance between the factual truth of the bodies and the personal truth of the pro-Franco women, but also how this tension obstructs the creation of social and healing truths. How are societies supposed to move forward if they struggle to agree on what happened in the past?

Perhaps this is why many scholars and practitioners are skeptical of the efficacy of a universal right to truth. Human Rights Council Resolution 12/12 affirms “the right of victims of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law . . . to know the truth regarding such violations.”8 The resolution, however, is far from perfect. Like many other international statutes, the document privileges states as the guarantor of this right, and has no enforcement mechanism. But more importantly, it does not describe what it considers to be “truth,” to which type of truth survivors are entitled, or what kind of truth states are obligated to disclose.

The difficulty of enforcing the right to truth can be seen on multiple levels. In The Gambia, uncovering factual and personal truths about the last twenty-two years and building a social narrative conducive to reconciliation is a daunting task. Such a fact-finding project requires major logistical coordination to organize hearings, record testimony, investigate archives, and compile the findings in a report, all while balancing the rights of survivors and moving the country forward.

In contrast, Spain demonstrates the frustrations of pursuing the right to truth on a normative level. Many people are uncomfortable with being proven wrong, particularly if the facts deconstruct a major part of their beliefs or identity. Despite all the factual and personal evidence of Franco’s human rights abuses, it has taken Spain over forty years to set aside its historical amnesia and agree on the establishment of a truth commission to investigate the civil war and the Franco regime.9 And even now this decision is not wholly supported; General Juan Chicharro, President of the Francisco Franco Foundation, stated that “[anti-Francoists] are not trying to reconcile; they are trying to win a war they lost 80 years ago.”10

Given these apprehensions, we must also ask if the right to truth is linked to the right to restitution and why it is difficult for individuals and institutions to acknowledge guilt. “Restitution” refers to “the entire spectrum of attempts to rectify historical injustices,”11 such as reparations, apologies, and the return of seized belongings.12 All of these mechanisms symbolize the perpetrators’ recognition of their wrongdoing to victims. By engaging in truth-finding, people risk being labeled as a perpetrator, guilty of human rights abuses and responsible for restitution. The Gambia makes the connection between the right to truth and the right to restitution clear, as evidenced by its Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

In other cases, however, even achieving an acknowledgement of guilt is challenging because symbolic gestures can have material implications. The human rights violations that occurred under Japanese colonialism are generally accepted by the international community, though of course, not by Japan itself. In recent years, the Japanese government has implied that comfort women were paid prostitutes and that the controversy was an attempt to tarnish Japan’s honor.13 While the Japanese stubbornness seems ridiculous given the amount of information available on the issue, there are also tangible reasons why Japan continues to hold out. First, their apology would have to extend beyond South Korea to other former colonial holdings, such as China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This is particularly painful for the Japanese because an admission of guilt could weaken its geopolitical stance, particularly with China. Second, only twenty-seven elderly comfort women remain in South Korea,14 and with time, their demands for acknowledgement and justice may soften as the memory is slowly forgotten.

Given the complex nature of truth and the struggle of fulfilling the rights to truth and restitution, it may seem as though truth, justice, and reconciliation are lofty ideals. But change is a lengthy process, and each positive step is significant, both to survivors and society. On November 7, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the Canadian government’s refusal of the MS St. Louis, a ship that carried over 250 Jewish refugees, many of whom would later die in the Holocaust.15 Ana Maria Gordon, a survivor on the ship, stated, “I firmly believe that to recognize an error publicly leads towards better understanding and healing.”16 While no truth commission, apology, or reparation can reverse the past, they can help preserve these truths, restore dignity to survivors, and help achieve a more just and peaceful future.

Caroline Nguyen is a graduate student in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, specializing in international security policy, international conflict resolution, and gender policy. Her area of interest lies at the intersection of gender and security, such as examining the gendered nature of conflict and post-conflict reconciliation.

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  1. Almudena Carracedo, “No More Silence: Franco’s Victims Raise Their Voices,” The Guardian, October 20, 2018,
  2. Ibid.
  3. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, Volume 1: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, October 29, 1998, 111.
  4. Ibid, 112.
  5. Ibid, 113.
  6. Ibid, 114.
  7. Jonathan Freedland, “Spain and the Lingering Legacy of Franco,” The Guardian, March 28, 2011,
  8. Human Rights Council Resolution 12/12, Right to the Truth, A/HJRC/RES/12/12 (October 12, 2009), 3.
  9. Hannah Strange, “The Politics of a Long-Dead Dictator Still Haunt Spain,” The Atlantic, October 14, 2018,
  10. Ibid.
  11. Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), xix
  12. Ibid.
  13. Mindy Kotler, “The Comfort Women and Japan’s War on Truth,” The New York Times, November 14, 2014,
  14. Wooyoung Lee, “Former Japanese ‘Comfort Woman’ Dies at 97,” United Press International, October 26, 2018,
  15. Jordan Press, “Trudeau Apologizes for Canada’s 1939 Refusal of Ship of Jewish Refugees,” CTV News, November 7, 2018,
  16. Ibid.


Category: Blog, Transitional Justice

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