Institutional Reform

In order to fully confront the legacies of massive human rights violations, a multifaceted strategy involving interventions at the institutional, legislative, civil society, community, and individual levels is required. Reforming state institutions to improve their legitimacy and integrity is central to such a strategy. It is critical to the pursuit of redress, accountability, and prevention.  

A man in fatigues and a blue UN ball cap kneels over and takes stock of arms while another man without a hat helps.

Public institutions—such as the police, military, and judiciary—are often instruments of repression and systemic violations of human rights in societies experiencing conflict or authoritarianism. When transitions toward peace and democratic governance occur, reform of such institutions is vital and traditionally considered central to transitional justice. Over the years, however, experience has shown that a narrow focus on the institutions directly involved in physical abuses is not sufficient or effective. Reforming entire branches of government and establishing appropriate oversight mechanisms to ensure their professional independence is frequently needed. This requires a revision of a large part of the applicable legal framework, starting with the constitutional charter. Furthermore, reforming justice and security institutions must be complemented with changes to political, economic, social, and cultural institutions if a society is to fully confront all the violations that occurred, including economic and social ones. 

Institutional reform is the process of reviewing and restructuring state institutions so that they respect human rights, preserve the rule of law, and are accountable to their constituents. By incorporating a transitional justice approach, reform efforts can both provide accountability and repair for abuses; more importantly, it can disable the structures and ideologies that allowed abuses to occur. This type of reform is often recommended and set in motion by truth-telling initiatives that reveal the institutional dimensions of past wrongs. 

Institutional reform may involve many justice-related measures, including those aimed at: 

  • Transforming or creating new legal frameworks, such as establishing new constitutions or adopting constitutional amendments and ratifying international human rights treaties to ensure protection and promotion of human rights  

  • Ensuring everyone has a legal identity, which is a precondition to the exercise of most human rights and to accessing public services 

  • Structurally reforming institutions to ensure they are independent, responsive, and representative and provide accountability, thereby improving their integrity and legitimacy  

  • Vetting personnel during restructuring or recruitment, thoroughly examining their backgrounds, to eliminate from public service or otherwise sanction abusive and corrupt officials 

  • Creating publicly visible oversight bodies within state institutions to ensure they are accountable to civilian governance 

  • Disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating armed actors and providing justice-sensitive processes and means by which ex-combatants can rejoin civil society 

  • Educate public officials and employees through training programs on applicable human rights and international humanitarian law 

As a transitional justice process, institutional reform seeks to affirm victims as citizens and rights holders and to build trust between all citizens and their public institutions. When such reform is well informed and implemented in an inclusive and transparent fashion, it also proves to be reparative in nature. Measures that help advance institutional reform can include public information campaigns on citizen’s rights and freedom of information and meaningful consultations with victims and civil society representatives on legislative initiatives.  

ICTJ’s Approach 

ICTJ provides expertise and support to ensure that institutional reform and other state-building processes adequately deal with past abuses and their root causes. Our approach to institutional reform emphasizes it as integral to a broad understanding of guarantees of nonrecurrence and to a comprehensive transitional justice policy.  

  • In Kenya, we supported the establishment and running of the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board and assessed the operations of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, in relation to the vetting of the police and ongoing abuses by police officers. We have also explored ways of combatting endemic corruption and promoting constitutionalism

  • In Georgia, we assessed the shortcomings in the post 2012 institutional reform steps and proposed measures in relation to competency-based and sector-driven vetting in the judiciary and security sector. 

  • We have produced guidelines for vetting security sector institutions published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and by the United Nations Development Programme. 

  • We have worked in Burundi to help with the census and identification of security agents. 

  • In Iraq, we were a prominent source of expert criticism on De-Baathification initiatives. 

  • We have published research on vetting; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration; security sector reform in relation to development and displacement; and the reform of education systems. 

  • In our research on the prevention of violence and violent conflict and our policy work on the Sustainable Development Goals, we have emphasized the importance of broad and long-term institutional reform in the international agendas on sustainable peace and development.