President Joe Biden couldn’t have been clearer. At the dawn of his administration, he began with an unequivocal declaration about the fundamental importance truth plays in our democracy — and, crucially, the responsibility leaders have to adhere to it.
We must demand that our leaders tell the people the truth, especially when it is difficult. We must demand our right to truth.
“There is truth and there are lies,” he said in his inaugural address. “Each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders — leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
The statement was a welcome and necessary corrective after four years of an administration that not only disregarded the truth, but also used lies as a tool of governance and policy. However, if those years have shown us anything, it is that we must not take Biden or any leader at his (or her) word when it comes to the truth. It is too important.
Instead, we must demand that our leaders tell the people the truth, especially when it is difficult. We must demand our right to truth and hold elected officials who violate that right accountable, not only at the ballot box, but also at the podium, on television, online and in the courts.
Yes, elected representatives have First Amendment rights. Acting as regular citizens, they can lie as much as the next person, morals and ethics notwithstanding. But when they use the powers of their office to intentionally lie to the public for their own personal gain, they violate their oaths and must be held accountable. To accept otherwise — to accept that politicians are allowed to lie — is to accept the end of representative government.
Indeed, truth is the lifeblood of democracy. We depend on public health officials to give us evidence-based advice on how to survive the pandemic, not politicians pushing dangerous quackery. For our economies to recover, we need financial strategies based on accurate and provable metrics, not made-up partisan talking points. To make informed choices at the ballot box, we need objective facts and evidence, not conspiracy theories.
The right to truth already exists in international human rights law in the context of mass violations of human rights, where the doctrine requires the state to do what it can to identify and disclose the truth about these tragedies, often by pressing members of prior regimes to reveal hidden facts known only by the violators.
As such, the doctrine has been used to support truth commissions and oppose blanket amnesty (broad grants of legal immunity after internal conflicts without investigations, individual petitions or the chance to learn the identities and whereabouts of victims and perpetrators).
At least 50 countries or territories have established truth commissions, ranging from informal civil society proceedings to national commissions to international investigative bodies, such as in the cases of the disappearances of political dissidents in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, systemic brutality under apartheid in South Africa, and decades of conflict preceding the independence of East Timor.
Although the wider goals of these commissions are justice and reconciliation, the principal function of all truth commissions is to destroy the lies that triggered or sustained mass violations of human rights through meticulous compilation and public disclosure of physical evidence, documents and testimony from witnesses, victims, family members and, especially, perpetrators.
Within this existing responsibility to disclose, there is also an implicit state responsibility not to lie directly. President Donald Trump’s lies in office, tallied at more than 30,000, ranging from trivial to egregious, violated this principle. Even before the 2020 election, there were calls for a U.S. truth commission to hold the administration accountable, and Trump’s incitement of violence at the Capitol by falsely telling his supporters that the election was stolen make this essential.
Democracy demands accountability. When elected leaders intentionally lie for their own personal gain, in ways that deny people their rights — including the right to have their votes counted — and use the powers of the government to support those lies, they are violating the right to truth of all citizens. When agency heads and staff members, who have also taken an oath, use their offices to aid and abet official lies, a formal reckoning is essential to restore respect for law and democratic governance.
Biden could honor his responsibility to “defend the truth and to defeat the lies” by establishing a presidential commission to investigate and document abuses of state power in service of official lies. Alternatively, Congress could establish a bipartisan commission, like the 9/11 Commission, to do the same.
But we should not merely wait for our political leaders to act. The right to truth should be asserted by pressing leaders who have lied at news conferences, town halls, formal hearings and campaigns. Elements of this can be heard in the article of impeachment against Trump, which rests on the assertion that his lies violate his oath and make him dangerously unfit for any future office.
Legally, the right to truth could be asserted by individuals in domestic proceedings and in international human rights systems (such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee) as an additional basis for remedies, along with violations of due process, mistreatment in custody, disappearance or death.
Legally, the right to truth could be asserted by individuals in domestic proceedings and in international human rights systems.
Biden is correct, each of us has a responsibility to protect the truth. This means not spreading lies, however entertaining, and countering them where possible. It means protecting truth-tellers and truth-seekers against those who would destroy them through lies, threats and other forms of intimidation. It means elevating the voices of truth-tellers and truth-seekers — whether they are scholars, journalists, writers, artists, activists, human rights defenders or even an honest politician.
“The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said just after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. “That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”
It is well past time to hold accountable leaders who do not meet this duty of truth, who lie, intimidate, imprison and kill truth-seekers and truth-tellers. Regardless of where we are in the world, we have a right to the truth. It is time we demand it.