“the healing and repair work of several generations”: the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) in a global reparations movement
What are Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs)?
Over the past three decades, truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) have been established in times when courts are unable to confront past violence and places where the scale of harm dwarfs the capacity of traditional punitive models. Diverse histories of violence, including the Liberian civil war, the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, South African apartheid, and the Indian Ocean slave trade, have passed under the TRC microscope.
TRCs are based on the premise that investigating historical violence (seeking the truth) can be done in such a way as to clear the path toward healing (reconciliation). Provision for reparations have come to be a standard part of TRCs as ‘victim-centered’ processes. As extra-judicial instruments, TRCs recognize the inadequacy of punitive criminal justice in dealing with the violence reverberating within our modern world. And yet, TRCs have historically been established as “transitional justice” instruments, that is, as part of a neoliberal democracy-building framework that pursues versions of stability and peace as defined by the UN and related power centers in the international order. TRCs attempts to move beyond criminal justice have conventionally been quarantined to “other” nations, countries in the Global South. Thus the TRC’s efforts to push beyond the insufficiency and violence of punitive criminal justice remains quarantined in a Eurocentric framework: it may be good for those other places, but not for us.
In the past decade, communities in wealthier nations have begun to embrace and apply the TRC as a way to confront historical injustice. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC (2012) and the TRC of Canada (2008), both focused on violence against indigenous/ First Nations populations. The Greensboro TRC (2004) and the Alachua County TRC (2018) focus on racialized violence against African American populations in the US. These, among others, speak to this ongoing effort to wrest the TRC from the transitional justice framework and apply it within a more robust historical justice movement.
What was the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission (2001 – 2004)?
In 2001, the Ghanaian government established the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) on the heels of the first electoral regime in Ghana’s national history. Political negotiation led to an expansive mandate. All the years from national independence in 1957 until the democratic constitution of 1992 were up for review, and the NRC used a broad definition of “state-sanctioned human rights violations” as its mission. Approximately 4,300 Ghanaians out of a country of 20 million came forward with stories of violence. A proportion of these were invited to testify at the public hearings, also held in different regions throughout Ghana and widely publicized by the media. Consequently, the NRC Commissioners penned a final Report reflecting on the process and making recommendations for reparations. By 2007 approximately 2000 Ghanaians received reparations payments ranging from $217 to $3,300 based on the abuse that they suffered. This reparations program was seen as largely unsatisfactory by the participants in the NRC, and was by many accounts with self-described victims, a source of bitterness.
The reparations program that the Ghana government implemented diverged from the reparations program in the Commissioners’ Report. Likewise, the Commissioners’ recommendations for reparations also did not match the shifts that survivors of violence publicly longed for in their petitions and testimonies.
Three Lessons from the NRC about Reparations
Lesson # 1: Reparations programs developed as part of global TRCs have often been paltry, focused solely on small sums of money or other token gestures—and divorced from what survivors actually ask for. These anemic programs then shore up the perception that reparations “cannot work” or “can never be enough” or “are not worth fighting for.” Reparations program must center the survivors of violence as experts– not only seeking their testimony, but also in the design and implementation of the reparations program.
Lesson #2: Survivors will have different priorities and demands in the pursuit of healing after state violence. Reparations program must account for the diversity of desire among survivor communities/.
Lesson #3: Pursuing transformative justice through reparations cannot occur solely with the delivery of particular goods to victimized communities. Without also addressing the transformation of the surrounding perpetrator society, reparations programs risk leaving the vectors of harm intact.
A robust approach to reparations is the first step in what will ultimately be the ‘healing and repair work of several generations.”
 Moses Chrispus Okello et al., Where Law Meets Reality: Forging African Transitional Justice (Pambazuka Press, 2012).