Constitution Watch 41/2013 of 25th November [The Constitution : National Peace and Reconciliation Commission: Part II]


[25th November 2013]

Giving Effect to the Constitution

The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission – Part II

Is the Commission a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

The answer to this question must be found by interpreting one of the Commission’s functions, set out in Part I, namely: “to bring about national reconciliation by encouraging people to tell the truth about the past and facilitating the making of amends and the provision of justice.”

This function is worded vaguely, probably deliberately so.  Two of the parties to the constitutional drafting process, the MDC formations, were in favour of establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate human rights abuses that took place after Independence, particularly in Matabeleland.  The other party to the process, ZANU-PF, was against.  The result is that the Commission can only “encourage” people to tell the truth about past abuses;  it cannot compel them to do so. It is unclear what inducements, if any, the Commission can offer to encourage people to come forward and tell the truth.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established with the stated objective of promoting national unity and reconciliation by:

  • ·      establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of human-rights violations committed between 1960 and the end of apartheid,
  • ·      facilitating the granting of amnesty to people who made full disclosure of politically-motivated violations of human rights, and
  • ·      establishing the fate or whereabouts of victims of those violations.

To enable it achieve that objective the Commission could, through its Committee on Amnesty, grant amnesty to persons who applied for it and made full disclosure of all relevant facts about their involvement in human-rights violations.  Persons granted amnesty were absolved from all civil or criminal liability for their conduct.

The South African Commission was established by an Act of Parliament, but its establishment, and its power to grant amnesties, were specifically authorised by that country’s interim constitution, and by the final constitution.  There is no provision in our new Constitution which states expressly that the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission can grant amnesties to people who tell the truth about the past, and no such power can be implied.

Despite there being no provision in our Constitution, an Act of Parliament could probably give the Commission power to grant amnesty from criminal liability to people who tell the truth about their crimes.  The President must assent to all Acts of Parliament, so such an Act could be construed as a delegation by the President of his constitutional power to grant amnesties.  But, such an Act could only exonerate repentant truth-tellers from criminal liability and could not override the victims’ constitutional right of access to the courts to obtain civil redress.

A point to remember is that the question whether or not the Commission can grant amnesties is largely academic because of amnesties that have already been given by the government.  A general amnesty was granted at Independence to perpetrators of politically-motivated crimes committed before 1st March 1980, and in 1988, an amnesty was granted to perpetrators of human-rights abuses committed during the so-called Gukurahundi operation in Matabeleland between 1982 and the end of 1987.  Other amnesties have also been given to individual offenders.  As a result, most people who were involved in past human-rights abuses have already been amnestied, so any further power granted to the Commission would be unlikely to induce them to come forward and tell the truth about their crimes.

To sum up, the Commission is not a truth and reconciliation commission along the lines of the South African model, since it has no constitutional power to grant amnesties to people who co-operate with it and tell the truth about their past crimes.  An Act of Parliament could confer such a power on the Commission, but the amnesties would confer immunity from criminal prosecution only, not from civil liability.  In any event, many of the offenders have already been amnestied.

What, If Any, Powers Should be Conferred on the Commission by an Act of Parliament?

The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission could exercise most of its functions without any additional legislation, simply using the powers given to it by the Constitution, but there are some powers that need to be conferred on it which would enable it to carry out its constitutional functions more effectively:

  • ·      Power to summon witnesses to give evidence.  Obviously this power will be necessary if the Commission investigates past abuses, but even if it doesn’t it may have to ascertain the truth behind current disputes before trying to reconcile the parties.  The Commission could not, however, use this power to compel witnesses to answer incriminating questions and so render themselves liable to criminal prosecution.
  • ·      Power to search for and demand the production of documents.  Again, documentary evidence may be needed to find out the causes of current disputes, e.g. distribution of resources;  it may also be necessary to establish the appropriate treatment for people who have been subjected to torture or physical abuse.
  • ·      Power to demand information from State institutions and other bodies.  For example, if the Commission is to develop mechanisms for the early detection of potential conflicts and disputes, which is one of its constitutional functions, it may need to analyse crime statistics obtained from the Police.
  • ·      Power to refer disputes to compulsory mediation or arbitration.  Parties to disputes may not be willing to accept the Commission’s mediation, and it may be in the national interest to compel them to undergo the necessary processes to resolve the disputes.

The Constitution does not give these powers to the Commission expressly or by implication, so if the Commission is to exercise them they will have to be conferred on it by an Act of Parliament.

Funding of the Commission

It goes without saying that the effectiveness of the Commission will depend in large measure on whether it receives adequate funding.

The Constitution requires Parliament to appropriate sufficient funds to all the constitutional commissions to enable them to exercise their functions effectively and that the commissions must be given a reasonable opportunity to make representations to a Parliamentary committee about the funds to be allocated to them [section 325].  The Constitution goes further and states that separate estimates of revenue and expenditure must be given for each of the constitutional commissions [section 305(3)].  These are welcome provisions and will go some way towards ensuring that the Commission is not left in the position of some of the commissions established by the previous Constitution, dependent for their revenues on niggardly allocations dispensed by a parent Ministry.

However, even with these constitutional provisions, the adequacy of the Commission’s funding will in the last resort depend on how much money the Treasury thinks it can spare — which may not be very much.

It may be noted that there is no provision in the Constitution giving the Commission the right to seek funding from outside government, so it may be in the same position as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, having to seek permission from the government before accepting outside donations.

Life-span of the Commission

The Commission’s life-span is 10 years, and after that it will cease to exist as a constitutional commission.  Should it be allowed simply to vanish, or should it be continued, perhaps in another form?

The first point to make is that it would be legally possible to extend the life of the Commission.  By stating that the Commission will exist “for a period of ten years after the effective date”, the Constitution does not mean that there must never again be a similar commission.  That would be absurd, tantamount to saying that Parliament is prohibited from establishing another body to promote national healing and dialogue.  Hence, at the end of the Commission’s ten-year life-span Parliament could pass an Act re-establishing the Commission as a statutory body with the same powers and responsibilities.

Whether it will be desirable to re-establish the Commission in ten years’ time is something that must be decided in the light of circumstances at that time, but three points can be made at this stage:

  • ·      The Commission’s functions include developing and implementing programmes to promote national healing and unity, developing procedures to facilitate inter-party dialogue, and developing mechanisms for detecting areas of future conflict.  If the Commission develops these programmes, procedures and mechanisms, someone will have to run and maintain them after the Commission has ceased to exist.
  • ·      The Commission is obliged to submit annual reports to Parliament on its activities, and will be expected to make recommendations about the promotion of national healing.  Again, someone should ensure that its recommendations are implemented after the Commission’s ten-year life has run its course.
  • ·      Finally, and most obviously, even if the Commission carries out its work conscientiously and effectively, areas of potential conflict are likely to remain after ten years have elapsed, and there should be a commission or some other body in existence ready to deal with them.

For these reasons, then, the government will almost certainly have to establish a new commission or some sort of similar institution[s] after the Commission has ceased to exist.


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  • comment-avatar

    The problem with many people when discussing reconciliation in the zim context, is that they tend to recognise 2 sides to the conflict, and then simply define one as being a victim and the other side an aggressor…….this is too politically convenient for one side…….it therefore is important to objectively understand the conflict from both sides, and this requires u to understand the conflict from the subjective perspective of both parties to the conflict……if not, there can be no real reconciliation achieved