Background

When South Africa experienced political transformation in the 1990s, it created a new model of grappling with the history of extreme division and violence. The basic premise of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was that any individual, whatever she or he had done was eligible for amnesty if they would fully disclose and confess their crimes. Victims were invited to tell their stories and witness confessions. Through the TRC, many families finally came to know when and how their loved ones were killed. The Commission investigated human rights violations by the architects of apartheid, as well as those who fought to destroy it. By the end, the Commission had taken statements from more than 20,000 victims of apartheid and received applications for amnesty from 7,100 perpetrators. The Commission was mandated to investigate the period from 1960 to the date of transition. 1960 was chosen because it was the year of the Sharpeville massacre of unarmed students by South African security forces, and marked an emotional and political watershed in the history of the country. Abuses had of course been committed before this date, particularly in the domain of apartheid legislation and land appropriation. However, a chronological scope that was too great would cause the Commission to become bogged down, lasting longer, gathering less meaningful evidence and causing greater polarization of society.

During the period 1996-1998 Professor Charles Villa-Vicencio was the national research director in the Commission. In 2000 he initiated the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and became its first Executive Director. The institute is attempting to use lessons of the TRC in post-apartheid South Africa, as well as other countries. Charles Villa-Vicencio has been a great source of knowledge and inspiration based on the South African experience, and called upon by numerous countries. He has worked in several African countries, in Peru and elsewhere on truth commissions and transitional justice issues. He has also spoken with groups in the USA who are building models of what is called restorative justice into the American criminal system.

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