We are young men and women living in countries dealing with legacies of massive human rights abuses. This legacy is trauma, silence, denial, humiliation. Yet, politicians often say that revisiting a painful past will only reopen old wounds.
In this effort they are likely to pass amnesty laws, shield perpetrators of human rights violations, and delay or obstruct efforts to uncover the truth. They do so purportedly in our name: “The young people of this country want to look to the future, they’re not interested in what happened before.” They say, the next generation can’t make a fresh start unless they’re insulated from the horrors of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If the truth is never revealed, the same causes will always produce the same results. Victims will always call for vengeance, offenders will always perpetrate more abuses. And we will continue on to a crescendo of violence on top of violence. Knowing the truth is a first step towards building a stable, peaceful society. The path will be long and difficult, but everyone must be involved so that the truth will come to predominate in our history and in our society.
The consequences of past abuses affect us even if we, the young, never suffered it directly. If our parents, our grandparents suffered and their suffering was never acknowledged or reparations made, the consequences for us, our families, and our communities are real.
How can there be genuine reconciliation in a divided society without truth about the past or the acknowledgment of victims? How can a country start a new chapter when thousands of families are still searching for their loved ones who were disappeared? Denying people their basic right to bury and mourn their family members bodes ill for a free society. Ignoring the impact of disappearances on the lives of those left behind breeds a sense of despair and injustice. Official silence on the circumstances of violations and the identity of perpetrators not only shows a lack of respect for victims, but leaves a poisonous legacy for the next generation.
But we have the choice between building a new society on the basis of truth and respect – or on the tissue of lies and ignorance.
We are often told in the aftermath of violence or after a dictatorship that the country isn’t ready for the truth, and that it’s “not the right time.” The fact is that we, the youth, have more time ahead than any other group, so we should sit at the table to decide, too.
In countries that are negotiating peace or trying to build a democracy; in times of momentous change when the victims of yesterday’s oppression may become parliamentarians and policymakers; in those times, we need the courage to face the truth. How many of our fellow citizens were disappeared? Where are they? Who is responsible for unleashing violence on civilians? Who robbed our future to pad their pockets? What are we going to do to establish justice?
Our countries need the truth. Not only do we want to know the truth, we accept the responsibility of what searching for the truth entails – that it’s not enough to ask for the truth. We have to help search for it, we have to take care of it, and we have to spread it. As the world marks March 24, the International Day of the Right to the Truth, we ask that our voices be heard as a clear call to break the silence about the past.
The authors are youth activists from Canada, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Lebanon, Nepal and Tunisia. For video interviews with the writers, please visit the International Center for Transitional Justice's project Inheriting the Struggle for Truth.