On September 14, 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a press release, applauding the Bolivian government’s establishment of a Truth Commission on August 21, 2017. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] The Truth Commission will investigate allegations of grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity that occurred between November 4, 1964 through October 10, 1982, during the military and authoritarian rule of Bolivia. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia; Amnesty International] See Ley N 879, Ley de la Comision de la Verdad, 23 December 2016 (Bolivia) (in Spanish only). The law establishing the Truth Commission, Law 879 of December 23, 2016, set its objective as “to solve the murders, forced disappearances, tortures, arbitrary detentions, and sexual violence, considered grave human rights violations, which were committed in Bolivia for political and ideological motives.” [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] The Truth Commission, composed of five members, will remain in place for two years, during which time the members will carry out investigations and report on their findings. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia]
The establishment of the Truth Commission follows a long period of widespread impunity, since 1982, for the grave human rights violations committed during the 18-year period, and its findings, the IACHR has noted, will contribute to ensuring justice for the victims’ families and to preventing further injustice. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia; Amnesty International] Bolivia previously made efforts towards seeking and promoting truth; however, the government made little progress, and those efforts were limited to violations relating to forced disappearances. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] Representatives of the victims’ families as well as civil society, though, continued to advocate for the establishment of a Truth Commission to ensure that the violations will be “remember[ed], record[ed], and clarif[ied].” [Amnesty International]
Establishing the Truth Commission in Bolivia
The draft of Law 879 was submitted to Bolivia’s legislative body during its 2016-2017 session after a public hearing in March 2015 before the IACHR; at that hearing, Bolivian authorities made a commitment “to promote victims’ rights to truth, justice, and reparation.” [Amnesty International] The legislative body in Bolivia enacted Law 879 to achieve those ends, after victims’ organizations drafted it. [Amnesty International]
The law declassifies documents, including military and police documents, that are currently restricted. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] See Ley N 879, 23 December 2016. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since started the process of declassifying its documents, and the Armed Forces announced on August 28, 2017, that it will open its archives and allow the Truth Commission access to its facilities. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia]
The Inter-American Commission’s Statement on the Truth Commission
The IACHR’s statement emphasized the importance of appropriate political, institutional, and monetary conditions for the success of the Truth Commission. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] This includes preserving the independence of the Truth Commission from the government and other State bodies. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] Further, Bolivia announced its preparation of a budget allocation decree, which the IACHR considers “a necessary step for the effectiveness of the work of the Truth Commission.” [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia]
The IACHR also noted the importance of disseminating and implementing the Truth Commission’s findings. “Establishment of the Truth Commission is a fundamental step toward promoting memory, truth, and justice in Bolivia and in the region,” stated Commissioner Vannuchi, who is the IACHR Rapporteur for the Unit on Memory, Truth and Justice, as well as the country Rapporteur for Bolivia. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia; IACHR Press Release: Rapporteurships]
Background of Truth, Justice, and Reparations Process in Bolivia
Throughout the 18-year period of military rule, more than 200 individuals were murdered; at least 150 were victims of forced disappearance; more than 5,000 were subject to arbitrary detention; and thousands of individuals were victims of other human rights violations. [Amnesty International] See Amnesty International, ‘No Me Borren de la Historia’: Verdad, Justicia, y Rearacion en Bolivia (1964-1982) (2014) (in Spanish only).
The government previously made efforts towards truth-seeking that focused on forced disappearances. The Bolivian government established the National Commission for the Investigation of Forced Disappearances in 1982. The Commission discontinued its work before the expiration of its mandate term and did not report on its findings, although 155 cases of forced disappearances were documented. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia] See US Institute for Peace, Truth Commission: Bolivia. In 2003, the government created the Interinstitutional Council for Solving Forced Disappearances, which discovered remains of missing bodies, but the new body, according to the IACHR, did not accomplish much in identifying those bodies. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia]
Efforts by Advocates and Civil Society
Human rights bodies and civil society have called on Bolivia to fulfill its duty owed to both victims and society of providing truth, justice, and reparation. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia; Amnesty International] The UN Human Rights Committee noted in 2013 that Bolivia needed to do more to ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and victims have effective access to reparations, and expressed particular concern that 70 percent of reparations claims are dismissed and the victims’ burden of proof is particularly high. [Amnesty International] The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Bolivia has similarly expressed concern over the failure to adequately implement reparations schemes for victims. [Amnesty International] See, e.g., UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the activities of her Office in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, UN Doc. A/HRC/13/26/Add.2, 18 March 2010.
Victims’ organizations and other civil society organizations have also been active in demanding a truth process. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia; Amnesty International] These demands were expressed at the public hearing in March 2015 before the IACHR. In response, during that hearing, the Minister of Justice committed to working with the victims. [Amnesty International] Bolivia also adopted the recommendation of establishing a Truth Commission during the UN Universal Periodic Review of Bolivia in 2015. See UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Plurinational State of Bolivia, UN Doc. A/HRC/28/7, 17 December 2014, para. 114.70.
Significance of the Truth Commission
A truth commission helps victims and their families to address unanswered questions, while acknowledging the abuse suffered. [IJRC; ICTJ] Further, the truth process may be a crucial step towards providing justice and reparations to victims through the essential testimony gathered. Finally, understanding the history and patterns of the violations may contribute to the country’s reform so that such violations are not repeated. [Amnesty International; ICTJ] A truth commission complements and enables the judicial process, but is not a substitute for prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators. [IACHR Press Release: Bolivia; Amnesty International]