Peace Talks Radio: Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
August 25, 2023
Correspondent Danielle Preiss interviews Elin Skaar, EreshneeNaidu Silverman
and Gloria Ayee
Elin Skaar: The Norwegianization Policy was a state policy that was introduced by the Norwegian State around 1850. I think the law came in 1851 to be specific. This was part of a nation-building process whereby the state wanted to integrate the indigenous people, the Sami and also the minority groups of Norway, the Finns, the Norwegian Finns and the Forest Finns into Norwegian mainstream society.
One of the main ways of making people mainstream Norwegians was to force them to learn the Norwegian language. Now, I think I need to point out that Norway is a very long and extensive country. Geographically, it’s huge. Many of the Sami and the Finn lived in the northernmost part of the countries where the population is very sparse. Geographical distances are huge.
At that point in time in the 1850s, schooling was only for the privileged few. The idea was to introduce the Norwegian language to these minority groups and our indigenous people. A schooling system was gradually put into place. They also of course wanted to preach the Bible and the Christian gospel to these people and one way of doing that was to make children go to school.
Into the1900s, so-called residential schools were gradually introduced. The closer you got to the Second World War which started in 1940 Norway, the more residential schools were built in the northern part of Norway.
I forgot to mention that the Sami people were originally nomadic people, reindeer herders and of course they would move around with their reindeer. The Norwegian state created residential schools so that the Sami people could send their children to school while they moved around with the reindeer, and they were taught only weeks every year. The children were taken away from the parents, sent to school in primary from the years of eight through ten and forced to be away from their parents for long periods of time. Language was one thing. Preaching the Christian gospel was a second.
A third motivation of the Norwegian State was actually benevolent in the sense that many Sami and Finn were really poor people. Most of Norway was really poor in the 1850s, but people living in the north of Norway were particularly poor. Those Finn and Sami who were not nomadic who actually were fishermen or farmers could only own land if they knew Norwegian and signed the papers in Norwegian.
Danielle Preiss: The Sami population are fairly politically empowered today. So why was a truth commission established now so long after the abuses officially ended?
Elin Skaar: I was really puzzled to find out that we had a truth commission in my own country. I had been working on truth commissions in Latin America and in Africa for many years. Normally truth commissions are set up after violent conflict, after internal armed conflict, after military dictatorships, after apartheid regimes, after one party regimes with heavy repression to investigate broad and systematic gross human rights violations. This was my concept and idea of a truth commission.
All of a sudden, we had it in Norway. I think we need to seethe occurrence of these new commissions, not only Norway in 2018, but also followed by similar commissions in Sweden and Finland established only one year ago.
There has been a movement in these Nordic countries, not only Norway, but also in Sweden and Finland pushed by the Sami Community for a truth commission. I think we need to see this in a broader, global context where there has been a big focus on transitional justice over the years. We’ve seen an outburst of truth commissions across the world.
This was an institution that people knew about also in the Sami Communities. There has been a huge international global focus on indigenous rights departing from the ‘80s and onwards. I think this rights consciousness thing has grown in the Sami Communities very, very gradually.
Danielle Preiss: I wanted to ask you, are there examples of how the Sami and Finn populations are still impacted today by the legacy of these policies?
Elin Skaar: Ignorance among the majority of the population surrounding the assimilation policy is the biggest problem.
A second problem is lingering stereotypes of particularly Sami but also Finn. Recent reports show that racism is still quite rampant.
A third problem is that health investigations show that Sami people have poorer health than the majority population and suicide rates are also higher among Sami than among the majority, particularly among young men.
Danielle Preiss: Have you heard or read any of the testimonies?
Elin Skaar: No, these are secret. Some of them have been made public with consent of the person giving testimony.
Danielle Preiss: Were there any examples that you remember that stood out?
Elin Skaar: The Truth Commission held open hearings in about 40 meetings. In these meetings, they also asked people to tell their stories. Mainly the stories are about the residential schools, how they were forced to learn Norwegian when they were children, how they were taken away from their parents.
There is another word that has been repeated over and over again in these public meetings, the word “shame,” how people have felt shame growing up and being afraid of using their language. The younger generations will say that their grandparents or their parents would speak this language to hide things from their kids. It was like a secret language.
The grandparents’ generation of young children today still know Sami and Finn. It was they who didn’t pass the languages onto their children so that the second generation now, those who are young today are now the ones who want to revive the language. They can’t go to their parents because their parents don’t knowhow to speak Sami or Finn. They have to go to their grandparents. There is a generation that has really lost the language and they are bitter. It’s been a sore point because in many families. They didn’t want to speak about it.
Another thing that people have said in these meetings is that they grew up not knowing that there was Sami or Finn. Not only was their language taken away, their identity, their family history was kept hidden from them. Now there is a big movement, a revival movement trying to access this ancestry and traditions and tradition always of dressing like the Kofte, which has become extremely popular again among young people, young Sami in particular.
There is a revival of trying to take back again what was taken away. This has been are current theme in many of these stories.
Danielle Preiss: Today on Peace Talks Radio our guest is Ereshnee Naidu Silverman, the Senior Program Director for The Global Transitional Justice Initiative at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
The most famous example of a truth and reconciliation commission is South Africa which is generally considered to be a success. We are now one quarter century out from that process. What has actually happened as a long-term result?
Ereshnee Naidu Silverman: The South African Truth and Reconciliation process, as you said has been celebrated globally, however increasingly, there has been more and more criticism of the process itself.
For starters, it had a very limited definition of human rights violations. It focused on civil and political rights violations and ignored economic, social and cultural rights. Much of apartheid was based on racial segregation but also an unequal division of resources between white South Africans; black South Africans, Indians and what biracial people are called in South Africa, “coloreds.”
The Amnesty Clause was also problematic. It offered people, perpetrators, an opportunity to come forward to share the truth about whatever acts they perpetrated in exchange for amnesty. Many perpetrators came forward, shared partial truths often with very little remorse and there was a burden placed on survivors to forgive the perpetrators and move on.
The success of truth commissions is often judged on the way victims are treated, often the delivery around reparations particularly. To date there are thousands of victims in South Africa who are still fighting for reparations.
Danielle Preiss: You said at the beginning of your response that globally it has been widely celebrated. The criticism that you’re speaking of, is that inside South Africa or shifting globally as well?
Ereshnee Naidu Silverman: It’s global. At that time, the reason it wasso celebrated is because it was one of the few truth commissions that waspublic. It was on national television. Amnesty was offered. A platform forvictims to come forward was offered. It was innovative in multiple ways,however years later we see that the truth commission didn’t do much in terms ofreparations. Transitional justice in lots of ways is unable to address some ofthe root causes of conflict. It does it very superficially and it’s also a verypolitical process.
Danielle Preiss: Ereshnee, we want to talk about some less well-known examples of truth and reconciliation commissions. Let’s start with Gambia. In 2017, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission was set up to investigate abuses under the leadership of President Yahya Jammeh which lasted from 1994 to 2017. What was the outcome of this process?
Ereshnee Naidu Silverman: One of the positive things about truth commissions is that they aim to uncover the past. In lots of conflict situations as well as in authoritarian situations as in the case of Gambia, there are a lot of silences in the society. Things are hidden. People refuse to talk about acts that were perpetrated. Often victims are living next to the perpetrator in many contexts.
What transitional justice and truth commissions do is allow for these silences to be broken and for some of the shame and taboos around this to be resolved. That’s what happened in the Gambia context as well. It was able to uncover some of the truths that happened under the Jammeh Regime.
In the South African process for example, women came forward testifying about their husbands, their brothers, their sons as victims, but didn’t testify about things like conflict related sexual violations that they experienced.
After much advocacy from local women’s groups, the South African Truth Commission set up special women’s hearings for women to testify about their experiences of violations.
Similarly in Gambia there was very little thought that went into how women were going to testify. One of our local partners called Women in Liberation set up women’s listening circles for women to share their experiences of what happened.
Danielle Preiss: Ereshnee, how can transitional justice processes be evaluated? How do we know whether or not they worked in the examples that we’ve been discussing?
Ereshnee Naidu Silverman: There is increasing questioning about whether transitional justice actually works. The problem as well in terms of evaluation, while you can evaluate the short-term results of a transitional justice process like a truth commission, the fact is that transitional goals of true justice and reconciliation actually happen over a long term and may even happen over generations.
It’s difficult to assess whether it’s been successful or not but, as I said, there are certain indicators for example, whether it was victim-centered, whether it was locally owned, whether survivors and victims receive reparations, whether they were treated in a specific way in terms of consultative process, whether women were included in the process. I think that we can set up a list of indicators for short-term success, but in terms of longer-term success, that’s a little bit more difficult to assess.
Danielle Preiss: Are there also negatives of transitional justice processes?
Ereshnee Naidu Silverman: It sets up expectations, particularly for survivor and victim communities. What needs to happen during that process is that survivor and victim expectations need to be managed. There is generally a perception that we’re going to go through a truth commission process and uncover the truth. There will be a report and reparations. We’re going to get recognition.
Something that lots of victims look for, recognition that they have been harmed, that there has been a wrong done. In some cases, they don’t get that recognition. In lots of contexts that I’ve worked in I’ve found that often victims only want somebody to listen to their story. They want somebody to recognize that there has been harm done.
In lots of communities, victims are ostracized for the violations that they experienced, and truth commissions sometimes don’t always fulfill those expectations and needs of survivors.
Danielle Preiss: Why has the United States not had a truth and reconciliation commission at the national level to investigate the abuses against the indigenous population or against enslaved people and black Americans?
Gloria Ayee: There have been attempts to actually establish a national process of course. In February of 2021, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Senator Cory Booker reintroduced their legislation to ask for the establishment of a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation which would look specifically at the effects of slavery, the legacy of systemic institutional racism, the continued discrimination of black Americans and other people of color in the United States.
Also, considering the ways in which laws in the United States, the political and economic systems continue to have impact on people of color and black Americans, that legislation was reintroduced. It is also supposed to work in conjunction with HR40 which was introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
Danielle Preiss: Can you explain what HR40 is?
Gloria Ayee: It’s legislation to form a commission to study and develop reparations, specifically looking at efforts for reparations in the United States. It’s not for a lack of effort I should say. If there is a support from democrats and republicans for this type of legislation in the future, hopefully we would see a national commission.
I would point to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Interment of Civilians which was established by the U.S. Congress in 1980 to study the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. That type of a national process was really valuable at the time when it was established because ultimately, reparations were paid to over 82,000 Japanese Americans. It was a useful process for the government to go through.
Danielle Preiss: Going to the last example that you mentioned, has this been proposed as something to leverage for other groups who have been harmed by the U.S., specifically for example enslaved people and black Americans. Have there been attempts to say look, we were able to do this once. Can we try to do a similar process for other groups?
Gloria Ayee: The conversation around reparations is very complex partly because there isn’t universal acknowledgement that African American descendants of enslaved people are still continuing to feel the legacy of slavery and continuing to be harmed by systemic oppression. It’s not even to speak to what has been offered as precedent because people don’t want to make that connection, but rather the conversation has to focus more on if we are actually seeing continued harm to populations in the present day.
There is clear evidence that certain populations in the United States continue to be marginalized, victimized, oppressed and feel the effects of systemic racism and racial inequality in numerous forms. If you look at the judicial system, the prison industrial complex, the unequal treatment of different groups in numerous sectors of society, then there is a clear line that can be drawn to the Jim Crow system of segregation and then back to historically slavery.
Danielle Preiss: You’ve written about a localized effort in Greensboro North Carolina. You wrote that the City of Greensboro had modeled their 2004 Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the South African TRC to investigate the Greensboro Massacre.
Gloria Ayee: In 1979 on the third of November of that year five people were murdered in Greensboro North Carolina when the Ku Klux Klan and members of the American Nazi Party fired into a group of protesters. There was actually media coverage around that event, so it was clearly documented by video footage. Community members and survivors were interested in understanding how a situation like that could have occurred in their community.
In many ways, they were eventually successful in more recent years. In the past few years, the Greensboro City Council did acknowledge the findings in the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report. They issued an official apology. There have been changes in the Greensboro Police Department.
Even if the work of a commission doesn’t seem to be successful in the short-term, ultimately, if we think long-term, there is potential. I look to Greensboro’s process as an example of how laying the seeds of this type of important work can ultimately pay off. It’s often described as the first official type of commission in the United States.
Danielle Preiss: Are we seeing any momentum growing from that first process? Are other processes coming up in other locations at the local level?
Gloria Ayee: What I would mention is the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission as another example to look to for what is possible in the United States. This particular commission was established in2019. Its mandate is to look specifically at racially motivated lynchings and hold public meetings to try to document and understand the context in which many of these lynchings happened. It is trying to investigate cases that happened around Maryland. I think this commission is hoping to conclude its work sometime next year, sometime in 2024. It is definitely one to look at.