The meaning of truth for victims of crimes, to society and democracy.
24 March is the ‘International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims’. This is an occasion to ask what exactly truth means for the victims, for our society and for democracy.
For victims of the most serious human rights violations, truth often contains an existential value that determines their future lives. When people themselves have experienced suffering, when their own relatives have been murdered or have disappeared and no one can or wants to give information about their fate, truth becomes a question of justice.
Truth for victims of gross human rights violations
What really happened when 43 Mexican students were kidnapped and murdered in 2014? Even today, six years later, their relatives have no certainty. They don’t know the truth about the crime or about the kidnappers. The bodies of their children have not been found. Their families are unable to grieve at their graveside. Soon after the kidnapping results of the investigation were presented, corrupt police officers and members of organised crime gangs were charged and arrested. However, the people presumed to have been pulling the strings had to be released again because their confessions had, in some cases, been extracted under tortured. Now the parents have issued an ultimatum to the Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador: By the end of the year 2020 they want to know the truth.
Truth is a human right for victims
The international community accepts that victims of these kinds of crimes have the right to know the truth. Anyone who has experienced atrocities in person has the right to know who was responsible. Every society in which a crime has taken place, has the right to know the truth without any lying or denial. It is the duty of the governments to make sure that the victims’ right to know the truth is enforced.
Truth is the nemesis of disinformation
The human right to know the truth doesn’t apply on the internet. Yet truth is absolutely essential to the survival of open and democratic societies in the disinformation age: We are bombarded with lies about COVID-19 on a daily basis, extremist and anti-scientific conspiracy theories are circulating online. False numbers and data spread through the Web like wildfire – often faster than true facts and figures. How do we tell whether information is actually propaganda or forgery? There is such a vast amount of it on the internet these days, it is often impossible to tell what it is real or fake. It is also incredibly easy to create disinformation or to technologically falsify facts.
Truth isn’t simply there, it is not given by itself, but requires becoming active.. It has to be sought and substantiated in a process of testing. The accuracy of information can often only be verified by the originator. That’s why we need professionals to check the facts for their truthfulness.
Professional truth seekers
New events and contemporary upheavals are always associated with truth seekers. In times of the coronavirus virologists are truth seekers. The climate change truth seekers are the climate researchers. Scientists are an established group of truth seekers in democratic societies, as are judges and journalists. They seek a form of truth that Hannah Arendt distinctly called ‘factual truth’.
Factual truth is based on verified facts which, depending on the profession of the truth seeker, can be scientific findings, judicial evidence or qualitative research results. In the legal context, truth must always follow the concept of epistemology. It is founded on evidence, witness testimonies, documents and exhibits. In qualitative journalism bases truth on research that is informed by objective information. This form of journalism is essential to the public opinion-forming process. Facts and truth must be put into context in order to verify their accuracy. Interpretations of truth established in these processes in the form of opinion commentary represent journalistic freedom – something that the other two professions, which are oriented on scientific and legal standards, do not have.
Truth is the autocrat’s enemy
Truth does not come to light when professional truth seekers are threatened and unable to perform their work independently. Democracies cannot exist without a system of checks and balances. Truth manipulation jeopardises basic democratic principles. Autocrats declare journalists to be enemies precisely in order to deprive them of their truthful authority. President Duterte on the Philippines manufactures ‘alternative’ facts. This involves keeping journalists, such as the Chief Executive Officer of news portal Rappler Maria Ressa, silent. The constitutional state ceases to exist as soon as judges have their decision powers removed. Scientific facts are eroded when scientists are prevented from doing their jobs because they refuse to swear allegiance to the government.
These massive attacks on the truth are jeopardising democracy in many countries. So far, we haven’t found a satisfying answer of stopping the manipulation of truth by the enemies of democracy. However we need to find it, if we want to preserve our values, our democracy, our constitutionality and our human rights.