Healing and justice through truth-telling: Local perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Deborah Pellow


Healing, Justice, Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone, Peacebuilding, Conflct resolution, Post-war healing

Subject Categories



The theory and practice of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions has been driven by the academics, aid agencies, NGOs, and international governmental organizations such as the UN, who have normalized the rhetoric and practice of truth-telling as a method of post-war peacebuilding. This dissertation shows that the underlying normative concepts of this approach rely on inappropriately universalized concepts of healing and justice, which are, in reality, not shared, nor experienced, universally. Through the voices of local people, I show how truth-telling was experienced in post-war Makeni, Sierra Leone. I investigate the local understandings, experiences, and evaluations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's public hearing process, with data collected through prolonged participant observation and a series of semi-structured interviews. My findings show that, to most locals in Makeni, the presentation of victim, witness, and perpetrator stories of the war were experienced not as catalyzing psychological healing or providing justice, but usually as useless and sometimes as actively provocative and problematic retellings of past violence. Central aspects of my argument are that, (1) the underlying concepts, foundational to the globalized norm of truth-telling as a peacebuilding mechanism, are simply not relevant in Makeni, (2) that foreign or Western administrated projects are evaluated by locals in relation to long histories of interaction with the West which complicate any such evaluation, and (3) that the ongoing professionalization of peacebuilding processes creates a dominant discourse of what justice, peace, healing and truth should be and should do. As a result, the administration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Makeni was unable to provide a reconciliatory experience for local people.


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