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We need a truth commission to uncover Bush-era wrongdoing

As Latin America's experience shows, there's great value in confronting official misdeeds.

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First, as Senator Leahy implicitly recognizes, while the period immediately following the departure of the offending officials may not always be the most opportune for prosecutions, it is precisely the period in which information must be gathered. In Latin America, where militaries often threatened fragile transitional institutions, many prosecutions were not undertaken for nearly two or even three decades. Because no such threat to US democracy exists, however, that basis for delay does not apply.

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Today, in Latin America, the countries that most respect human rights are precisely those that lived through terrible periods of repression but that – gradually – have come to terms with their abusive pasts by thorough investigations and accountability. In each successful case, authorities created truth commissions to document and preserve relevant information in the early transition period in which they were unable or unwilling to prosecute violators.

Second, even without the creation of truth and reconciliation commissions, revelations about past abuses irrupt. Human rights expert Alexander Wilde has termed these "irruptions of memory" – unplanned moments in which vital truths about repressive practices are made public. One example is the 1995 confessions of Adolfo Scilingo, an Argentine naval captain who had participated in death flights over a decade earlier in which drugged detainees were thrown out of planes to drown. Mr. Scilingo simply could not live with his conscience and, a dozen years after Argentina's transition, chose to speak openly about the many crimes he had committed and witnessed.

Another source of this sort of irruption of memory is external: foreign courts, as was seen with the investigation and arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998 and the effects this produced within Chile. But there are other similar cases of leaders (such as Peru's Alberto Fujimori, extradited by Chile) and mid-level administrators who have been brought to justice or forced to testify outside their home countries. Each of these instances has triggered consequences in the country of origin. What irruptions of memory and external prosecutions have in common is that both destabilize the apparent calm established in the country, a calm often built on a negotiated forgetting and non-examination of the past.

What Specter and the rest of the US can learn from Latin America is this: If we are to control our own destiny, we must reclaim our past. A truth commission, along the lines suggested by Leahy, would be a good means of beginning that process. The alternative – to turn the page without knowing what is on it – could doom us to a haphazard and unpredictable future in which individual consciences and other nations' courts control our destiny.

James L. Cavallaro is a clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School. He worked in human rights in Pinochet's Chile (1988-1990) and in post-transition Brazil (1994-2002).