Fits and Starts: Making Transitional Justice Part of the Sustainable Development Agenda


On July 10, the long-awaited UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development got underway in and around UN Headquarters in New York. Over the next 10 days, representatives of UN member states, international agencies, civil society, and others gathered to discuss the progress being made in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Why were these meetings so important? This was the first time that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 was up for review, so it marked a major event, and a pathway for the global justice and peacebuilding communities to shape conversations about development, which often focus on growth and poverty eradication to the exclusion of the peace and justice issues that prevent societies from developing to their full potential.

The 2030 Agenda has been criticized for, among other things, neglecting human rights. Nevertheless, the SDGs—adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly—are important because they frame global discourse, objectives, and priorities. In 2018, ICTJ therefore convened the Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG16+—made up of governments, NGOs, and international organizations—with the aim of articulating the value of transitional justice to peace and development. In May, the Working Group published its report, On Solid Ground.

The report argues that societies that have experienced gross human rights violations face particular and immense challenges in making progress towards the SDGs. With massive numbers of victims, severely divided communities, weak and untrusted institutions, and depleted resources, these countries cannot approach development in the same way as those that have not suffered such trauma. The SDGs do not mention massive violations or transitional justice, but the Working Group contends that the targets included in SDG16—including rule of law, access to justice, prevention of violence, inclusive institutions, and reduction of corruption, as well as SDG5 on gender equality and SDG10 on equality—are unlikely to be achieved with any real sustainability if those violations are not addressed.

Since last fall, ICTJ and other members of the Working Group participated in SDG-related events in Freetown, The Hague, Stockholm, and Sarajevo to make the case for transitional justice. In June, just before the HLPF kicked off, ICTJ organized dialogue sessions in Brussels and New York to bring policymakers and civil society members into substantive discussions on the matter. Those dialogues emphasized the fact that even among countries that have experienced large-scale abuses, the specific context still makes a huge difference. In countries undergoing some kind of transition, such as Colombia, Kenya, and Tunisia, attempts to address the past, while they face political and other challenges, have seen some traction. In countries where violent conflict and repression are still ongoing, however, such as Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, and South Sudan, the complete absence of institutions and trust and the prevalence of instability and fear present fundamental obstacles to progress.

At the level of policy discourse, the efforts of the Working Group have started to pay off. In April, the international Task Force on Justice released its report, citing and reiterating the Working Group’s conclusions regarding the contributions of transitional justice to preventing the recurrence of injustice, tackling root causes, and developing context-specific approaches. In July, another report by the Global Alliance echoed the argument that addressing grievances through transitional justice contributes to preventing violence and conflict. And finally, in February, a ministerial “Declaration on Equal Access to Justice for All by 2030” issued in The Hague highlighted the need to address the legacies of human rights violations.

But there is still a long road ahead. Getting transitional justice into policy discussions is one thing, but giving it the attention it needs at that level is another. Events leading up to and during the HLPF still often failed to address the specific challenges presented by past mass violations and the value of responding to them. For those of us in the room, it was also not lost on us that these conversations fell short of actually making a difference on the ground, which is ultimately what counts. Voluntary National Reviews, submitted to the UN by countries like Sierra Leone and those already mentioned to show progress in achieving the SDGs, reveal the immense challenges they face in restoring the trust of victimized and marginalized communities and reestablishing institutions. The international community should work with these countries to address their pasts, in an effort to create better futures.

PHOTO: The 2019 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development took place July 9 through 18 at UN Headquarters in New York. (Photo by IISD/ENB / Kiara Worth)