How does Truth-Telling Heal? An Exploration of Voice and Pathways toward Victim Healing in Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste

Ethnic conflict Storytelling Solomon Islands Timor-Leste

Why is it that truth-telling in post-conflict settings has been found to be both helpful and harmful to victims of mass violence? Existing studies have identified a range of positive benefits and negative consequences of truth-telling for victims; however, the reasons why some victims experience a sense of healing while others do not after participating in post-conflict truth commission processes continue to remain unclear. Addressing one piece of this complex puzzle, this thesis seeks to begin clarifying how truth-telling may be beneficial for victims by investigating the research question: What pathways lead from truth-telling to victim healing in post-conflict settings? Building on the proposition that having voice—a key component of procedural justice—can help individuals to overcome the disempowerment and marginalisation of victimisation, this thesis investigates voice¬ as a possible causal mechanism that can create pathways toward healing within truth commission public hearings. Intended as an exploratory, theory-building study, this thesis investigates the potential positive impact of public truth-telling on victims by using a least similar case study design in two post-conflict countries, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. A total of 19 semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals who were victims of mass violence in both research settings, and who gave public testimony in their country's truth commission. The field research findings suggest that voice can be seen as a possible causal mechanism that links truth-telling to victim healing by facilitating the creation of three pathways: empowerment, catharsis, and social acknowledgment. I argue that, for those victims interviewed, contributing to their country's national narrative and raising awareness about past violence, experiencing a sense of relief from sharing their stories with others, and receiving empathetic support or feedback are aspects of voice that contributed to the creation of these pathways, which in turn facilitated a sense of healing.The interview data also suggests that the healing potential of truth-telling may be jeopardised when voice is hindered in instances where victims' ability to share their stories is limited, when they experience distress related to giving testimony, or when their testimonies are met with negative responses from community members. Additionally, three other facets of truth commission participation were found to affect victims' sense of healing: clarity around the purpose and goals of the truth commission, the realisation of substantive outcomes from victim participation, and the degree of cultural respect demonstrated by the process. I argue that these aspects of truth commission processes may also be pathways that facilitate the healing potential of truth-telling. Comparative, empirical studies that investigate how truth-telling contributes to victim healing in post-conflict settings are scarce in the field of transitional justice, hence this study begins to fill an important gap in the existing body of literature. From a practical standpoint, by enhancing understanding of how truth commissions can promote healing, the findings obtained from this research provide insight into how the design of transitional justice processes may be improved in the future to better respond to the needs of victims of mass violence.

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