Without information, no reconciliation

Report on Truth Commissions and Corporate Complicity

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When the Brazilian National Truth Commission (CNV) began in 2012, its decision to investigate not only the crimes of state agents but also corporate complicity in the dictatorship’s repressive apparatus seemed like an innovative direction for transitional justice in general and truth commissions in particular.

Transitional justice in general, and truth commissions in particular, had not yet explicitly included recognition of the direct and indirect violations by non-state business actors in dictatorships and armed conflict. Recent research conducted at the University of Oxford reveals, however, that Brazil’s efforts were not as unique as they at first appeared.

The Oxford study has examined where truth commissions have included corporate complicity in human rights violations in their final reports, how they do so, and what they recommend regarding justice and remedy for victims. The research entailed investigating 39 final truth commission reports in 30 countries.

Where have truth commissions recognized corporate complicity?

The Oxford research reveals that over half of the truth gathering bodies that issued final reports recognized business involvement in gross violations of human rights during dictatorships and armed conflicts. The study finds 22 out of 39 truth commissions (56%) or 19 of the 30 countries (63%) named specific companies, business associations, or individual members of the business community involved in human rights violations.

Truth gathering mechanisms that include corporate complicity are not evenly distributed around the globe. Most are concentrated in Latin America, with 10 such truth commissions in 9 countries. The region is closely followed by Africa with 8 truth commissions in 8 countries, and Asia with 4 truth commissions in 2 countries. Although other world regions -- the Middle East and North Africa and Europe – had truth commissions that issued final reports, the Oxford study did not find references to business involvement in human rights violations. 

How do truth commissions address corporate complicity?

Of those truth commissions that include corporate complicity in gross violations of human rights, all (22 in 19 countries) named specific companies, business associations, or individual members of the business community involved in those abuses. The final reports identified 321 national and multinational economic entities around the world assumed to be complicit in the human rights violations in dictatorships and armed conflict. This number corresponds to an average of 17 companies named per country, but the range is vast with only one company named in three countries and Brazil topping the list with 123 companies named. Those with higher than the average number of companies named include Guatemala (45), Liberia (34) and South Africa (30). The naming of specific companies potentially involved in human rights violations provide initial areas for investigation by judicial bodies for strategic litigation. Indeed, the Oxford study reveals that 22 companies named in ten truth commission reports have faced subsequent judicial action in domestic and foreign criminal and civil courts. These include companies in Latin America (Argentina – 3, Brazil – 1, Ecuador – 3, Guatemala – 3, and Peru – 1), Africa (Cote-D’Ivoire – 1, Kenya – 1, Liberia – 5, Nigeria – 3, and South Africa – 2), and Asia (East Timor – 1).

The vast majority of the companies named in truth commissions are identified for their involvement in financing repression and conflict: 154 or 45%. Although truth commission reports identified non-specific forms of company participation in violent repression and conflict in 105 (48%) of the cases, they also included specific violations linked to named companies, including kidnapping, arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, extrajudicial killing or murder, slave labor, and rape. The reports also identified companies that established on-site detention centers. Companies carried out these violations in collaboration with public (e.g., military or police), private (e.g., death squads and paramilitaries), and firm-sponsored security apparatuses.

The highest proportion of victims of companies’ violations identified in the reports were members of the perceived political opposition (36%), followed closely by unionized and non-unionized urban and rural workers (32%). Local communities, including ethnic groups and indigenous peoples, did not fall far (25%).

What follow-up actions do truth commissions recommend?

While the identification of firms involved in corporate complicity is a significant step in recognizing non-state business actors’ responsibility for human rights violations, only a little over half of the truth commission reports (12 of 22) followed up with recommendations regarding remedy for abuses. Of those, seven truth commissions focused on official policies of reparations and restitution, specifically recovery of land, jobs, and other assets, as well as unspecific forms of victim reparation. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on businesses to voluntarily contribute to a reparation fund, an effort viewed as largely unsuccessful by most accounts. Labor and economic reforms were suggested in some cases as well as the promotion of human rights (Honduras, Paraguay, and Ecuador). Only Brazil explicitly advanced a recommendation for further investigation into companies’ violations for possible prosecution. Thus this study shows that what is unique about Brazil’s truth commission is not the investigation into companies’ abuses but its recommendation to hold those companies responsible. A civil case is ongoing in Brazil against Volkswagen for its involvement in the on-site detention and abuse of 12 unionized workers. The truth commission reports for Ecuador and Liberia also hinted at further investigations and prosecutions and, indeed, some of those cases are making their way through the courts.

 The University of Oxford study is part of the Corporate Accountability and Transitional Justice (CATJ) collaborative project funded by the Open Society Foundation. The project includes partners in Argentina (CELS and ANDHES) and Colombia (Dejusticia). This truth commission study received funding from the British Academy and the University of Oxford Press John Fell Research Fund.

While some studies mention 50 truth commissions worldwide, not all of these investigative bodies issued final reports available to the public. The Oxford team still hopes to access and analyze reports from truth commissions in Germany, Lebanon/Syria, Lithuania, Nepal, the Philippines, and South Africa (Harms Commission).

Country

Truth commission name

Year

Firms

named

Types of violations

 

Recommendations

Argentina

National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, CONADEP)

1983

11

General; Kidnapping & Detention; Detention Centers; Torture; Killing; Labor 

 

 

 

None

Brazil

National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade, CNV)

2012

78

General; Detention; Detention Centers; Financing Repression; Killing; Displacement; Labor

 

Further investigation

Chad

Commission of Inquiry into the Crimes and Misappropriations Committed by Ex-President Habré

1990

 

Economic Crimes

 

 

Restitution of Property

Chile

National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación, 'Rettig Commission')

1990

 15

General; Detention; Detention Centers; Killing; Labor

 

 

 

None

Chile

National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (Comisión Nacional Sobre Prisón Politica y Tortura, ‘Valech Commission’)

2003

2

General;

Detention Centers

 

 

None

East Timor

Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação de Timor-Leste, CAVR)

2002

2

Illegal Enterprises;

Security

 

 

 

Reparations

Ecuador

Truth Commission to Impede Impunity (Comisión de la Verdad para Impedir la Impunidad)

2007

22

General; Killing; Detention; Security;

Displacement

 

 

Human rights promotion

Guatemala

Commission to Clarify Past Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence That Have Caused the Guatemalan People to Suffer (or Commission for Historical Clarification – Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico)

1999

48

Detention Centers; Torture; Disappearance; Executions; Displacement; Slave Labor; Deplorable working conditions

 

 

 

 

None

Haiti

National Truth and Justice Commission (Commission Nationale de Vérité et de Justice)

1995

8

General; Labor

 

 

None

Honduras

National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights (Comisionado Nacional de Protección de los Derechos Humanos, CONADEH)

1993

1

General

 

Media Reforms

Break up Oligopolies

Kenya

Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC)

2009

7

Displacement

Restitution of Lands

Titling

Liberia

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia

2006

35

Displacement; Illegal Economies; Security

Investigation

Seize unlawful properties

Nigeria

The Judicial Commission for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations (Oputa Panel)

1999

9

Economic Crimes; Displacement; Labor

Reinstatement

Environmental protections

Contract reform

Paraguay

Truth and Justice Commission (Comisión Verdad y Justicia, CVJ)

2004

4

Detention Centers;

Displacement

Human rights promotion

Labor reforms

Peru

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliacion, CVR)

2001

8

Illegal Economies; Security; Killing;

Economic Crimes

 

Reparation

Restitution

Sierra Leone

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

2002

7

General; Labor; Illegal Eeonomies; Security;

Economic Crimes

Labor reform

Tax reform

Recovery of assets

Transparency

Anti-corruption

South Africa

Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (TRC)

1995

32

General; Detention Centers; Killing; Labor; Financing Repression; Security

 

 

 

 

Voluntary contributions

South Korea

The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3rd Event

2000

1

General; Detention Center

 

 

None

South Korea

Presidential Commission on Suspicious Deaths

2000

1

Detention Center

 

None

South Korea

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

2005

1

Labor

 

Thailand

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand

2010

 

Economic Crimes

None

Tunisia

Truth & Dignity Commission

2014

 

Economic Crimes

Anti-corruption

Reparations

Zambia

Human Rights Commission of Inquiry (Munyama Human Rights Commission)

1993

1

Labor

 

 

None

 

What conclusions can be drawn about truth commissions and corporate complicity?

These findings from the Oxford team’s study of truth commissions and corporate accountability reveal that truth commissions have recognized the role that corporations have played in the violence under dictatorships and during armed conflict. Public awareness of these truth commission findings remains quite low, however. Even transitional justice specialists lack knowledge of these truth commission efforts. It may be that the traditional transitional justice focus on violations carried out by state actors obscures awareness of truth commission initiatives regarding non-state actors’ responsibility for human rights abuses. Governments dependent on businesses, and the named businesses themselves, would no doubt find truth commission findings inconvenient and harmful, and might therefore attempt to minimize their importance. Whatever the reason, truth commissions’ investigations and reporting have generally failed to make visible companies’ responsibility for abuses; they have hardly had an impact on public recognition of the phenomenon. Truth commissions, furthermore, have rarely made serious efforts to promote accountability or remedy mechanisms for corporate violations in their recommendations. Such an outcome is consistent with the very slow progress of prosecutions of companies for human rights abuses that have been initiated at the domestic, foreign, and international level. Truth commissions’ findings suggest a kind of “governance gap,” in which recognition of human rights violations by businesses exists without corresponding mechanisms to support victims’ rights to redress and remedy.

 

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