23 Nov One Year In: What is the TRNUC?
[Justin M. Loveland is a freelance legal consultant in public international law, transitional justice, and international human rights, currently working as Senior Legal Consultant to the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission of Seychelles.]
For the perhaps small percentage of the world that can place Seychelles on a map, the 115 islands northeast of Madagascar form a paradisiacal archipelago of white sandy beaches whose main offerings are coral reefs, tourism, and cinnamon, and whose main headlines centre on offshore tax havens and marine ecosystem protections. Yet the small country has a deeper and more complicated history that has recently drawn transitional justice processes within its borders. The Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission (TRNUC) commenced operations in August 2019 to investigate human rights violations related to the coup d’état of 1977 and nearly three-decades-long authoritarian presidency of France-Albert René.
Less than one year after declaring independence from the British in 1976, then Prime Minister René seized power and deposed President James Mancham when the latter was on a state visit to the UK. President René proceeded to unilaterally suspend the Constitution linked to the Independence Order (and later instil a new one declaring a one-party state), greatly expand executive power, and engage in enforced disappearances, murder, arbitrary detention, unjustified land acquisition, and other violations against those perceived as not sufficiently supportive of the regime.
Although the Constitution of 1993 reintroduced multipartyism to the country, René reigned until 2004, at which point he appointed his compatriot James Michel to the presidency. The same party in power from the one-party state—the Seychelles People’s United Party, known today as United Seychelles—continued to rule long past the 1993 Constitution and René’s resignation, however. It held power until a month ago, when for the first time in the country’s history the opposition won both the presidency and a majority in the National Assembly.
TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE IN SEYCHELLES
Written on widely throughout the past few decades, the idea of “transitional justice” was born between World War I and the Cold War era in response to heightened levels of governmental transitions in the Americas, Eastern Europe, and Africa, spurred by the fear that previous regimes would not be held to account for the crimes committed while in power. In order to encourage this accountability, the doctrine encompasses several concurrent and wide-ranging practices set in motion in order to achieve the coexistent aims of peace and justice—including “peace, reconciliation and social cohesion, retribution, punishment, restitution, reparation, truth-telling, vindication, validation, deterrence, prevention, reform, and development.”
As has been understood more and more since the oft-cited example of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on which the Seychelles TRNUC was loosely modeled, truth commissions are often an integral part of the broader transitional justice process. Truth commissions are non-judicial in nature and, as deeply contextual and country-specific, carry diverse mandates. Generally, they are empowered to investigate and make findings on human rights violations that happened in a particular country over a particular period of time; issue a Final Report containing recommendations on rule of law, state-building, and governmental reform, among other guarantees of non-recurrence; and contribute to a sense of closure and societal reconciliation. It is estimated that more than 40 truth commissions have existed over the past three decades.
In Seychelles, there have evidently been many transitions in the country’s short history, the latest and most progressive being the October 2020 elections. Communities, neighbours, and society at large, however, still feel the effects of division, suspicion and mistrust, and emotional trauma suffered during the René regime. Now is thus the time for the “justice” prong of transitional justice, including efforts at truth-seeking, accountability, and reconciliation.
The TRNUC of Seychelles has a three-year mandate to “receive complaints in respect of alleged violations, to gather, collate and analyse information and evidence with respect thereto, and to make decisions” (TRNUC Act, section 3(3)). For a truth commission, it thus has a unique, quasi-judicial operational scheme in which it receives evidence during hearings, drafts case determinations, and makes findings in relation to the many general offences enumerated in its Act. While at times a clunky and halting way of establishing the truth(s) of what happened during the coup and ensuing regime, the case determination process is actually an innovative way of fostering reconciliation by allowing individuals to come before the Commission, have their “day in court” without going to a court, have their stories heard and earnestly taken down, and ultimately see a recognition of their past suffering and quasi-adjudication of reparations recommended.
Though recognised more and more as deeply intersectional and interdisciplinary, the field of transitional justice is historically very legalistic and law-driven; yet, the only lawyer on the seven-member TRNUC is the Chair. Australian lawyer and renowned international criminal law expert Gabrielle McIntyre, also the only international commissioner on the TRNUC, is Chairperson of the Commission, in which role she acts determinedly to steer the Commission and the country toward justice, reconciliation, and regrowth. Though truth and reconciliation processes are inherently a national undertaking, the presence of one or more international commissioners can lend credibility, neutrality, and specific expertise to the work of a truth commission. On the other hand, it is important for the country to feel that the transitional justice process is not being hijacked by international influence; Chairperson McIntyre is thus assisted by six national commissioners who come from all parts of Seychellois society and hold positions as professors, bishops, and businessowners.
For its small structure, threadbare budget, and predominantly non-lawyer team, the Commission has a mammoth workload spanning about 420 cases total. It currently hears testimony in over 180 cases at a given time, and only around 20 cases have been deemed inadmissible to date. The Commission must also render decisions on recommended reparations for each case and prepare a Final Report to submit to the government by August 2022 (TRNUC Act, section 14(2)). Among its several objectives, the TRNUC is meant to “help bridge divisions caused by any violations” and “unite the people of Seychelles around a common agenda that will help them move forward in confidence and with a sense of common purpose, and ensure that such violations do not recur” (TRNUC Act, section 3(7)).
CHALLENGES TO THE TRNUC’S WORK
Despite its progressive mandate and forward-looking objectives, the Commission has had to grapple with many hurdles presenting risks to its institutional legitimacy in the eyes of the Seychellois public, the government, and the international community.
First, onlookers may quickly note that the same party that engaged in human rights violations during the coup, and thus under scrutiny by the TRNUC, also established the TRNUC. However, safeguards have been built into the Commission’s structure to ensure its political independence, such as impartial, non-political Commissioner appointments of persons “of recognised good standing and high moral character” (TRNUC Act, section 4(4)) and its mandate to hold public hearings (TRNUC Act, section 6(4)). Nevertheless, the TRNUC’s political origins have provided certain operational challenges, including lack of budgetary capacity and ebbing political support in the form of Attorney-General friction and widespread resistance to the Commission’s broad subpoena power (which equals that of the Supreme Court, see TRNUC Act, section 8).
In the arena of domestic reception, generally speaking, the public are understandably sceptical of another government-made institution. The Commission has perhaps inevitably contributed to a measure of divisiveness that is inherent in a society of 98,000, which had for much of its history been either a colony or a one-party state. But what manifests as division now may later be seen as a necessary side effect of the reconciliatory work of truth commissions and transitional justice more broadly: in order to have the desired positive effects on discovering truths and building societal reconciliation and national unity, people must talk to each other, share their stories, open up old wounds, and engage in frank dialogue to mend them.
The Commission has also faced certain procedural hurdles stemming from a lack of capacity, including being bound to paper files in a digital age, having a working language of English in an otherwise Seychellois Creole-dominant society, and of course continuing operations during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet the Commission is resilient: both its domestic staff and its growing team of international consultants are overcoming this by collaborating frequently via videoconference and other digital means, dedicating increased administrative time to scanning and digitalising documents, and pursuing alternative streams of technical assistance such as updated transcription and translation equipment.
Notwithstanding the mixed reviews, and while it is too soon to pass judgment on the success of the TRNUC, the Commission’s work has, for many, proved cathartic and constructive. Out of the many survivors and their families who to date have provided evidence before the Commission, several have reportedly experienced intense emotional release, deep satisfaction from feeling listened to, and perhaps a sense of justice brewing. The Commission is also often the talk of the town, with hearings regularly televised and the nation tuning in as one might to a soap opera—which is demonstrative of an unusual amount of attention and public buy-in to the truth and reconciliation process.
The TRNUC has been a crucial first step in the long-term transitional justice process in Seychelles. Now having weathered national elections and an unprecedented democratic change of power, the Commission is ever more poised to demonstrate its integrity and commitment to its mandate of helping reconciliation and national unity.
With much work on its plate and yet insufficient capacity, the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission, through its continued hearings and truth-seeking efforts, investigations into accountability since the time of the 1977 coup, and forthcoming recommendations on governmental reform, retains its conviction to spurring transitional justice in Seychelles. It continues to expand its team of international consultants and ad hoc experts on themes like reparations and security sector reform and it is eager to work with a government that has appeared ready to foster societal reconciliation, to bolster institutional legitimacy and rule of law, and to take the steps necessary to build a future of peace and stability.
For the small Indian Ocean islands, it is hoped that these aims are no longer merely theoretical but positively forthcoming.