24 March is International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims
To speak the truth is a virtue but it is not comfortable. It challenges those who speak and hear it as well as blessing them. Truth telling is sometimes compared to a sword, double-edged for better slicing through flesh.
We are familiar also with the dilemmas that love presents people with – whether and when to tell a child the truth about a terminal illness, whether to tell a friend his wife is being unfaithful to him, whether to report someone who has taken money from a school fund but later replaced it. It is always easy to find reasons to conceal the truth. Yet we know the terrible consequences that silence brought upon children who suffered from clerical sexual abuse.
That burden also falls on governments, particularly about whether to tell the full truth about dangerous situations. It has always to weigh the risk of panic, of inflaming hostility against groups which could be made scapegoats, of the loss of confidence in institutions on which people depend for their prosperity. Governments, however, are always tempted to suppress the truth for less proper reasons: to avoid embarrassment, to conceal the adverse effects of the policies they have adopted, or to win elections.
These are everyday dilemmas and failures associated with truth-telling. The day dedicated to Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims, however, looks to more serious concealment of abusive and inhumane behaviour, such as murders and kidnappings ordered secretly by government ministers, carried out with impunity by security forces, and covered up by the prosecution and murder of courageous reporters and by making fake news an industry.
Such concealment by governments corrupts society. It leaves people uninformed and makes their participation in the political process into a farce. It creates an alienated society without commitment to moral values.
In Australia the value of transparency has been apparent in the at once shaming and cleansing hearings of Royal Commissions into sexual abuse of children and into the banks. Both enquiries revealed criminal behaviour in the organisations and deeply immoral attitudes among senior executives. They offered a chance for a new beginning. Although scepticism about necessary change is justified, the organisations affected are now offered the opportunity to earn trust again.
The lessons to be learned from Royal Commissions and from tyrannical governments are that transparency is essential, that investigative reporting, for all its own weaknesses, is essential, and that truth opens the door to freedom.
For the right to the truth is to be secured, the voices of those who have no voice must be heard. Advocacy is central. That is why at Jesuit Social Services we take such pains to argue before Government for the rights of vulnerable young men and women, for prisoners and people who are unemployed. If rights are to be recognised persons need to be central and to be respected.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.