Transitional Justice As Communication: Why Truth Commissions and International Criminal Tribunals Need to Persuade and Inform Citizens and Leaders, and How They Can

This Article reframes transitional justice as communication. It argues that the impact of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) and international criminal tribunals (ICTs) on countries where human rights violations occurred depends largely on these institutions changing what those countries’ citizens and elites know and believe. More precisely: most of the ways TRCs and ICTs could advance their goals—such as reconciliation and deterrence—require informing these domestic audiences about the institutions’ activities, methods, and findings, and persuading them to accept the institutions’ conclusions. Communication-specific activities, such as public outreach and media relations, are essential. Yet shaping elite and popular knowledge and opinion are not mere add-ons to what some see as TRCs’ and ICTs’ “core” work: investigating human rights violations, holding hearings, writing reports, and indicting and trying perpetrators. Rather, the imperative of influencing local people must shape how these institutions conduct those activities and sometimes even what conclusions they reach. Unfortunately, TRC commissioners, ICT judges and prosecutors, and their staff, along with transitional justice scholars, have underestimated the importance of influencing domestic audiences for advancing TRCs’ and ICTs’ goals. As a result, the institutions have devoted too little attention and resources to communication.

The Article also provides a typology of the activities and occasions through which TRCs and ICTs can influence domestic audiences. It offers examples of effective and ineffective practice from five international criminal tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court and Special Court for Sierra Leone, and over a dozen truth commissions, such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Where evidence permits, it assesses individual institutions’ performance. Finally, the Article analyzes the most important challenges that TRCs and ICTs encounter in communicating with domestic audiences.