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What The Jan. 6 Committee Could Learn From The Failures Of Truth Commissions To Bring Justice And Accountability



The U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol resumes on Sept. 28, 2022. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The U.S. congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attacks is resuming its hearings on Oct. 13, 2022, and is expected to produce a report before the November midterm elections about rioters’ attempted coup and efforts to prevent President Joe Biden from assuming office.

The bipartisan committee is not authorized to indict or arrest anyone. Still, the committee hearings have prompted speculation about whether former President Donald Trump or his top advisers might face charges. The group does have the power to recommend legal actions for the Justice Department to take action against Trump and others.

But even without legal teeth, the committee can serve other purposes, like influencing public opinion, for example, or recommending policy reforms. There’s a long precedent of other countries setting up truth commissions, like the Jan. 6 committee, which work to unveil the truth about alleged crimes or major controversies.

As a political science scholar and expert on truth commissions, I think that looking at other kinds of truth commissions in different countries provides insight into what the Jan. 6 committee’s legacy might be – chiefly, it can help develop a narrative of what American democracy means.

How truth commissions work

Truth commissions are independent or government groups that investigate political crimes and human rights violations. They have provided a common way of transitioning out of political crises around the world, by hearing testimony of people involved in political violence and producing a comprehensive report with recommendations to the government.

Truth commissions are typically formed in the first year or two after the end of an authoritarian period, when a newly democratic government is faced with responding to human rights abuses and acts of political violence by the previous government. Some countries have also established truth commissions as a part of peace processes, like the 2016-2022 Colombian commission that released its final report in June 2022 following six decades of civil war. That report, based on testimony of over 24,000 Colombians affected by the conflict, emphasized the right of the victims to know the truth.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that formed in South Africa in 1995, following the end of the racial segregation policy known as apartheid, is probably the best known example of a truth commission.

But at least 40 other countries have used truth commissions around the world. Governments, the United Nations, human rights organizations and religious organizations have all carried out truth commissions. Like the Jan. 6 commission, other truth commission hearings can be emotional. Some have been broadcast and most have produced public reports.

Truth commissions have multiple goals. Most want to establish a historical record.

In many countries, testimony during truth commission hearings has helped locate mass graves or otherwise helped families learn what happened to murdered or missing loved ones.

Truth commissions sometimes recommend criminal prosecution – though many commissions offer amnesty to anyone who testifies, as happened in South Africa in 1995.

A row of men wearing suits and one wearing a traditional African shirt stand in a row.
Desmond Tutu, right, served as the chairperson for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as shown in 1996.
Anna Zieminski/AFP via Getty Images

Limits to truth commissions

The U.S. House voted to set up the Jan. 6 committee in June 2021 “to investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes” of the Capitol attack.

Alongside the hearings, 919 individuals have been charged in connection with the insurrection.

But the Capitol attacks also left many unanswered questions – like the timeline of events, Trump’s exact association with the rioters, what role individual members of Congress may have played and why the National Guard was not directed to the Capitol for several hours.

Fully answering those questions may have positive benefits. For one, it may help Americans better understand political polarization and extremism in the country.

But that doesn’t mean it will resolve those issues.

Truth commissions are often part of a larger project of transitional justice, meaning a collection of strategies to strengthen a new democracy or a fragile peace.

Other examples of transitional justice may include putting accused leaders on trial and reforming state agencies like the police.

Countries adopt different transitional justice approaches based on what is needed in their circumstances. Because truth commissions and trials may be politically risky, some scholars instead highlight the value of amnesty for promoting human rights and democracy.

It hasn’t always worked in Latin America

For two decades, I have researched human rights and the rule of law in Central America. Different truth commissions’ pitfalls are evident there.

Guatemala, for example, had two truth commissions after its 36-year-long civil war ended in 1996. One commission was officially part of the peace process and the other was carried out by a national human rights organization.

These two commissions largely agreed on the basic facts – at least 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared during the civil war, and the government was responsible for more than 90% of human rights violations committed against civilians.

But establishing and publicizing that historical record did not lead to political stability in Guatemala.

It has also been difficult to prosecute former leaders. Guatemalan military dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, for example, was convicted of genocide in 2013 to great international fanfare. Ríos Montt was the first former head of state ever convicted of genocide in his own country’s courts. Still, another court annulled the verdict 10 days later, in a move seen by many as politically motivated.

A woman wearing bright-colored clothing holds a sleeping child on her back while she watches a parade of people walking down a street.
Guatemalans came to observe the peace-signing between the government and rebels in 1996, ending 36 years of civil war.
Rodrigo Arangua/AFP via Getty Images

Making a historical record

The Jan. 6 committee is not investigating a military dictatorship, as has happened in Latin America. But it is creating a historical record that will shape how Americans think about their own democracy for years to come.

August 2022 polling suggests that the hearings have not shifted public opinion on Trump or his involvement in the attack on the Capitol, with Democrats and Republicans remaining polarized.

Meanwhile, public trust in the U.S. government remains below 30%, linked to perceptions of government unresponsiveness and corruption.

It’s not year clear what the Jan. 6 committee’s legacy in American politics will be. The flashy production values and more than 20 million viewers, at one point, still may not be able to create a shared national narrative.

With only 7% percent of those polled in June 2022 reporting high confidence in Congress, it seems unlikely that the committee’s report will reduce political friction.

The Conversation

Rachel E. Bowen receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

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Georgia On The Nation's Mind: 5 Essential Reads




Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia waves to a crowd on election night. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Shortly after his reelection on Dec. 6, 2022, Rev. Raphael Warnock talked about his political journey in a state better known for its racist history of suppressing the Black vote.

“I am Georgia,” Warnock said. “A living example and embodiment of its history and its hope, of its pain and promise, the brutality and possibility.”

Warnock’s senate campaign against his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, occurred at a time when Georgia voters faced a slew of new election law reforms that the state’s lawmakers said were necessary to protect election integrity. But civil rights advocates characterized the reforms as the latest version of suppression efforts targeting Black voters.

During his speech, Warnock was clear on his position.

“The fact that millions of Georgians endured hours in lines … that wrapped around buildings and went on for blocks, lines in the cold, lines in the rain, is most certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist,” Warnock said. “Instead, it is proof that you, the people, will not allow your voices to be silenced.”

As the campaign unfolded, The Conversation published several articles looking at the history of voting in Georgia and how race has played a significant role in shaping the state’s election laws.

1. New election reforms

Georgia’s GOP lawmakers overhauled the state’s election laws in 2021 – and critics argued that the target was Black voter turnout, not election fraud as claimed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other white conservative politicians.

Emory University Political Science Professor Richard Doner details the shameful history and breaks down the key changes in the state’s new voting law, SB 202, that emerged at a time of growing Black political power and GOP unproven conspiracy theories on election fraud.

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Georgia’s GOP overhauled the state’s election laws in 2021 – and critics argue the target was Black voter turnout, not election fraud

2. Runoff elections usually produce better policies

Despite its racist history, Georgia’s runoff voting process is not inherently racist – as the 2022 campaign demonstrated with two Black men running against each other.

In fact, argues Westminster College Assistant Political Science Professor Joshua Holzer, runoff voting tends to produce better policies.

“This is because,” Holzer writes, “runoff elections often favor candidates who lean to the center, and center-leaning candidates seem to be more likely to respect human rights and provide better representation of a larger portion of the electorate.”

À lire aussi :
A brief history of Georgia’s runoff voting – and how this year’s contest between two Black men is a sign of progress

3. Georgia’s national importance

With Warnock’s victory, the Democrats control the Senate with 51 of the 100 seats and no longer need a deciding vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties in order to pass bills that support their legislative agenda.

But as political science scholar Richard Hargy explains, the campaign stood as another test of the influence former president Donald Trump holds within the Republican Party and as “an opportunity to improve their Senate seat tally ahead of a difficult election cycle in 2024.”

À lire aussi :
Georgia’s runoff election: why the result is so important to Biden and Trump

4. Runoffs elections have a cost

In Georgia, if no candidate receives 50% of the general election vote, there’s a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

And those races are expensive, writes political science professor John A. Tures.

Though the final tally for the 2022 runoff is not completed, in 2020, the campaigns cost at least $75 million statewide.

Despite the expense, runoff elections have an impact on voter turnout – and not for the better.

“The only consistent trend is that the runoff elections drew fewer voters than the general elections that preceded them,” Tures writes.

À lire aussi :
Georgia runoff elections are exciting, but costly for voters and democracy

5. Weak celebrity political candidates

In addition to race, another factor played a part in the Georgia campaign – Walker’s celebrity status.

Political science scholar Richard T. Longoria explains that while celebrity candidates have advantages in name recognition and media attention, they often lose their bids for public office.

“They lose for the same reasons other candidates lose,” Longoria writes. “If they take unpopular policy positions, they lose. If they are never considered to be serious candidates, they lose.”

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Celebrities in politics have a leg up, but their advantages can’t top fundraising failures

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

The Conversation

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Amid Coup, Countercoup Claims – What Really Went Down In Peru And Why?




Clashes on the streets of Peru. Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images)

Peru has a new president following the ouster of former leader Pedro Castillo at the hands of the country’s Congress.

His removal followed an attempt by Castillo to cling to power by dissolving a Congress intent on impeaching him. Castillo’s opponents accused him of attempting a coup – a charge his supporters similarly levied in regards to his removal from office. The day ended with the former president in detention.

The Conversation asked Eduardo Gamarra, an expert on Latin American politics at Florida International University, to explain the wider context of Peru’s political crisis – and what could happen next.

Can you talk us through the events of Dec. 7, 2022?

In a nutshell, President Pedro Castillo thought he was going to be impeached and tried to move ahead of lawmakers by closing down Congress. He said he intended to rule by decree and reform the country’s constitutional court and judiciary. In effect, he challenged the armed forces to choose sides.

But the plan backfired. He announced that he was closing Congress, but Congress refused to be closed down. Instead, lawmakers went ahead with a previously planned impeachment trial and overwhelmingly voted to remove him from power. The military for its part rejected Castillo’s ploy.

Castillo was later arrested on a charge of violating a constitutional order. He was replaced by former Vice President Dina Boluarte, who was sworn in as president. Peru’s first female leader intends to serve until 2026.

A man in blue is seen inside a car with a police officer next to him in uniform
Former President Pedro Castillo was taken into custody.
Renato Pajuelo/AFP via Getty Images

Behind all this was a competition of legitimacy between Congress and the president – and Congress won.

How did it come to such a crisis point?

That isn’t easy to explain, and the wider background and political system needs to be understood first.

Peru has a hybrid system, in which both parliament and the presidency split power and can act against each other. So constitutionally, the president can dismiss Congress and call for new elections, and, at the same time, Congress can impeach and remove the president. But there is some ambiguity, and there is a case to say Castillo exceeded his constitutional powers in this instance.

The point of having such a system is that when there is a crisis of government, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a crisis of state. The prime minister can resign as head of a government, yet the president can remain in place for stability.

But in reality, it encourages instability. Congress has forced a president from office before. President Martín Vizcarra was removed from power in a 2020 impeachment. In fact, Peru has now had six presidents in the last five years. There have also been instances in the past of Peruvian presidents dissolving Congress. Famously, President Alberto Fujimori did this in 1992 in what was undoubtedly a coup d’état.

At the same time, what you have seen in Peru is a dismantling of the traditional party system. More than a dozen parties are now represented in Congress, which makes it hard for any one party to hold a majority.

In the case of Castillo, only around 15 members of Congress were from his party – a tiny minority in the 130-seat assembly. That made it hard for Castillo to form a strong base to push forward his agenda or protect him from impeachment proceedings.

Making matters of governance worse is the fact that there has been a collapse in trust for Peru’s political institutions and parties.

This all leads to an atomized political system – the old parties have disappeared, but no strong new parties have emerged. In this void have been individuals who have driven the political agenda, with no central force to govern cohesively.

Thrown into this is the political polarization that has affected much of the region, with the country increasingly split between the left and the right.

But it gets worse. Not only is the country polarized politically, it is split by ethnicity, region and class.

And this contributed to Castillo’s downfall?

Yes. From the beginning of his term the leftist former teacher was attacked by his many opponents in Congress for a variety of alleged grievances. He has governed over a worsening economy and faces a slew of corruption charges. Indeed, Castillo had already survived two attempts to impeach him before the events of Dec. 7, 2022 – and he only came to power in July 2021.

Recently, he was accused of treason after suggesting in a CNN interview that he would consider giving landlocked Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean. Suggesting that an apparent off-the-cuff comment amounted to treason might be pushing it. But on top of that, there were serious accusations of corruption against the president. By my count, there were five serious attempts by Congress to bring about malfeasance trials against Castillo.

How has he responded?

Castillo initially was hoping to get the backing of the Organization of American States (OAS) and tried to convince the regional body, which is tasked with, among other things, upholding democracy in the region, that his own Congress was trying to remove him in what he said was a coup. That may have worked – after all, he was a legitimately elected leader.

But before the OAS was due to hear a report into the allegations, things escalated, culminating in Castillo’s ouster.

So, both sides are claiming a coup? Any truth in those claims?

That is a discussion that will likely go on for a long time. Peru’s left will no doubt frame Castillo’s removal as a coup, while anti-Castillo politicians will insist it wasn’t. They will claim they were heading off a coup attempt from Castillo who, by dismissing Congress, was setting the stage to become a dictator-like leader.

My sense is what happened was Castillo was desperate and trying to defend himself from a Congress that was over-zealous about getting rid of him. But this is not to say they do not have grounds for doing so, as there does appear to be credible evidence of corruption.

Having said that, is that enough to say it was a coup – especially when it was brought about through constitutional measures? Perhaps not.

How have Peruvians reacted?

There have been some demonstrations, with people out on the street. But it has been so disorganized, it is hard to say who has been protesting for what and in support of whom. It also hasn’t developed into widespread protests.

Has there been concern from regional leaders and the U.S.?

We have seen the usual international appeals for calm, and the OAS has expressed its called for national unity.

Meanwhile, leftist leaders in the region have expressed support for the ousted Castillo. Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed concern but said it was a “constitutional removal.” Others, such as Bolivia’s President Luis Arce framed Castillo’s ouster as the “overthow” of a democratically elected government.

There has been very little comment of consequence from the U.S. other than welcoming the new president and urging democratic order. Both the U.S. and regional leaders are likely hoping that the political and economic instability that has plagued Peru in recent years ends. The concern is that ongoing chaos could affect regional stability, and also affect Peru’s position as a trading partner – the country is a large producer of copper and silver, among other mineral resources.

What could happen next?

There are a lot of ways this could play out. The new president has already called for a political truce and a government that represents all parties.

But whether she will be allowed to effectively govern given her lack of a mandate is in question. Boluarte is a legitimate president based on the constitutional process that saw her put in place. But she has no legitimacy in the sense of being democratically elected. She was also very closely aligned with Castillo.

A women in a yellow jacket raises her right hand in front of a Peruvian flag.
Dina Boluarte, Peru’s sixth president in five years.
Congress of Republic of Peru / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Perhaps the best thing she could do is call immediately for general elections so the people can have a say in what happens next.

But that could also be a risk, given the degree of political polarization in Peru. The country has seen a rise in xenophobic and nationalistic sentiment, due in part to high levels of immigration into the country.

Peruvians want a government that can actually govern. The fear, however, is that the country’s current conditions – economic and political instability mixed with polarization and growing xenophobia – could lend itself to the emergence of a far right populist.

The Conversation

As an academic and as director of a university research center, I’ve received funding from foundations, US government agencies, and multilateral institutions.

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What Are Iran's Morality Police? A Scholar Of The Middle East Explains Their History




Protestors are pressing the Iranian regime for changes since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

Until recently, most people outside of Iran had never heard of the country’s morality police, let alone followed their wider role in the region. But on Sept. 16, 2022, the death of Jina Mahsa Amini sparked widespread protests in the streets of Iran and elsewhere that have shown no signs of abating. Amini had been in the custody of Gasht-e-Ershad, the Persian name of this notorious police force, for “improper wearing of hijab.”

On Dec. 4, reports citing Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri suggested that the morality police had been abolished. Montazeri said that the morality police lacked judiciary power and that hijab laws were under review, which led to widespread speculation about whether the regime was trying to find a way forward.

Yet, there were those who doubted the comments and called it a “false flag” on the part of those in power. A few noted that even if the morality police were abolished and the mandatory wearing of the hijab repealed, the regime would still need to be held accountable for all of its human rights violations.

These sentiments have formed the basis of a three-day nationwide strike that began on Dec. 5 and has shuttered thousands of shops, including those in the historic Grand Bazaar in the heart of Tehran, bringing the economy of the country to a grinding halt.

But who are the morality police? Where did they come from? And what is their history during and before the Islamic Republic of Iran?

A vice squad in context

The mandate and power of morality police date back to before the Islamic Revolution that shook Iran in 1979, and their reach has extended throughout the Middle East.

The Quran says that it is imperative that religious leaders “ensure right and forbid wrong.” To carry this out, beginning at the time of the Prophet Mohammad, public morals were overseen by market inspectors referred to as muhtasib.

As a scholar of gender and feminism in the Middle East, I’ve studied the long history of debates about the role of Islam in regulating morality. The earliest evidence of a muhtasib, interestingly, was a woman selected in Medina by the prophet himself.

Over the centuries, the mandate of the muhtasib became focused on regulating dress, particularly for women. While these market inspectors were recorded as issuing fines and occasional lashings, they did not have the same level of authority as the judiciary.

By the early 20th century, however, the muhtasibs had transitioned into the vice squads, patrolling the streets to make sure people were complying with Islamic values. It was mostly in Saudi Arabia under the influence of Wahhabism that morality police forces first gained prominence and momentum. The first modern morality police force, an official committee charged with “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” was formed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1926. Comprised mostly of men, the force was charged with enforcing modest dress, regulating heterosocializing – engagement with members of the opposite sex if unmarried or unrelated – and ensuring citizens attended prayer.

By 2012, more than one-third of the 56 countries making up The Organization for Islamic Cooperation had some form of religiously informed squadrons seeking to uphold right and forbid wrong as interpreted by Islamists in power.

A committee to enact revolution

In Iran, the morality police first appeared in the form of what was called the “Islamic Revolution Committee” following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shiite cleric who led the revolution, wanted to control the behavior of Iranian citizens after too many years of what he and his fellow Islamists called a period of “secular Westoxication.”

The Islamic Revolution Committee, called “Komiteh” by many Iranians, was merged in the 1980s with the Gendarmerie, the first rural police force overseeing modern highways, to form the Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1983, when mandatory veiling laws were passed, the Komiteh was tasked with ensuring these laws were upheld in addition to their other duties of ensuring right and forbidding wrong.

A changing time

The current morality police – the Guidance Patrol or Gasht-e-Ershad – were given formal standing as an arm of the police force by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

The group had been steadily growing in size since the 1980s, and by 2005 consisted of more than 7,000 officers. Women make up less than a quarter of the squadron but frequently accompany their male counterparts, who often arrive in unmarked vans and pour out into the streets in green uniforms. The women, meanwhile, wear black cloaks that cover them from head to toe.

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Komiteh was comprised of religiously devout followers of the regime who joined the force at the encouragement of clerics. However, by the early 2000s, Iran’s population was comprised mostly of young people. When Ahmadinejad made the Komiteh an official police force, a number of young men joined to fulfill their mandatory military conscription. This younger generation was more lax than their older counterparts, leading to inconsistent patrolling.

When President Ebrahim Raisi came to power in 2021, he emboldened the morality police to engage in harsh crackdowns on the Iranian populace, particularly in the cities. Raisi, like Khomeini and other clerics, used this vice squad to send a message to Iranian citizens that the regime is watching.

This clampdown, particularly when it led to the death of Amini, has been met with outrage by a large number of Iranians. While it is not yet confirmed whether or not the morality police have been disbanded, protesters are continuing to press the regime for change.

The Conversation

Pardis Mahdavi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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