On January 7, 2004, King Mohammed VI created Moroccos Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC). This was an unprecedented development in the Middle East and North Africa, and Moroccan authorities presented it as proof of the countrys commitment to political reform.
The king made clear that he considered this body a truth commission. Its mandate is to investigate forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions carried out between 1956 and 1999, to prepare a report containing specific as well as general information concerning these violations, and to recommend forms of compensation and reparation for the victims, including measures of rehabilitation and social, medical, and psychological assistance. The king also asked the ERC to recommend measures to help Morocco memorialize these abuses and to prevent their recurrence in the future.
The ERC is expected to submit its final report and recommendations to the king at the end of November 2005. Thus will conclude a historic stage in Moroccos efforts to acknowledge and address grave human rights violations of the past.
But as in other countries that have created truth commissions for similar purposes, the ERC is only one phase in a longer process, a phase whose ultimate contribution to reconciling with the past and building a more democratic future depends on the extent to which the state acts on the letter and the spirit of the ERCs recommendations.
In the nearly two years since its formation, the ERC has interviewed thousands of victims and conducted field investigations in different parts of the kingdom. It also organized seven public hearings, some of them televised, at which Moroccans described the abuses to which they or their relatives had been subjected. The ERC also arranged medical assistance for victims of past abuse who urgently needed it.
Under its statutes, the ERCs mandate was to have ended in April 2005. However, the king approved an extension until the end of November 2005. During the first year of its work, the ERC stimulated many controversies. Observers largely welcomed the ERCs mandate to reopen the question of past abuses (a question that the palace had insisted earlier was closed) and to address these abuses with measures that went beyond financial compensation. They also welcomed the designation of several respected and independent human rights activists as members of the commission.
But critics regretted the considerable constraints on the ERC. First, the ERC cannot publicly name officials whom it finds to be responsible for, or implicated in, the commission of grave human rights abuses. This limitation seemed that much harder to accept given that a number of officials suspected of ordering or participating in the commission of grave abuses continue to hold high positions within the government, and certain types of abuses were continuing to occur in Morocco.
There were also concerns about the ERC mandate, which seemed to focus on forced disappearances and arbitrary detention while excluding other forms of grave abuse, such as torture. Critics also asked how the ERC would go about obtaining the cooperation of state agencies, given that it had no statutory powers to compel cooperation or punish non-cooperation. Some also voiced frustration with what they perceived as inadequate ERC communication with families of the disappeared.
The ERC is an advisory body, and except in the realm of paying compensation to victims, no text obliges state institutions to obey or even to consider seriously the ERCs recommendations. Moroccos is not the first such body that cannot publicly name perpetrators or compel witnesses to cooperate. Nor is it the first truth commission to have a mandate that is limited in terms of the period and the types of abuses it covers.
Truth commissions can serve different functions in different societies. The ERC, despite its limitations, has an important role to play in addressing Moroccos human rights past, and, potentially, in strengthening the rule of law in the future.
But whatever the conclusions and recommendations of the ERC, it is the obligation of Moroccan authorities to ensure that all victims of grave violations enjoy their rights under international law, including the right to compensation, without discrimination. It is up to them to implement the ERCs recommendations on acknowledging, memorializing, and heightening public awareness of past abuses, and to adopt measures that consolidate the rule of law and safeguard against a recurrence of grave human rights abuses. And it is their obligation to ensure that those responsible for committing grave violations do not benefit from impunity but are instead identified and brought to justice.