ICTJ at 20 Years: An Ever-Evolving Pursuit for Justice and Sustainable Peace in Societies Grappling with Legacies of Mass Human Rights Violations


Transitional justice asks and seeks to answer the most difficult social, political, and legal questions a country can pose during and after a period of armed conflict or repression. How does society acknowledge and redress large-scale or systematic human rights violations? How can it prevent them happening again? How can it break the cycles of violence and build a sustainable peace? How can it reform its institutions and strengthen the rule of law to safeguard itself from repressive rule?

These questions are both essential and perennial. Answering them often requires going back through a country’s history to identify entrenched injustices and grievances that lie at the root of violence and repression. Not surprisingly, the answers are not easy, nor are they the same for all societies. That said, any attempt to respond to these questions, if it is to be successful, must first and foremost consider the rights and needs of those who were subjected to the violations, recognize the harms they suffered, and affirm their dignity.

Tracing the Origins of Transitional Justice

Instances of what we now call transitional justice can be found throughout human history, long before the field ever got its name. There have been many examples of societies over the centuries seeking “to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses implementing a full range of processes and mechanisms,” to use words of the United Nations definition of transitional justice. Many of these early efforts, however, did not in fact pursue its key objectives, as defined in the UN Secretary-General’s guidance note on transitional justice, “to ensure accountability, to serve justice and achieve reconciliation.” Instead, they were designed to expand or consolidate power and apply a victor’s justice.

Some commentators trace the origins of the modern-day transitional justice field to the accountability measures that the Allied forces undertook in the aftermath of World War II—notably the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, which represented the first international tribunals. By default, our societies tend to understand justice narrowly as criminal justice, and more precisely prosecutions and trials. Doing so, however, overshadows the many other accountability elements that are critical to justice and the respect for human rights, such as institutional reforms and reparations initiatives. In fact, one could argue that, together with the Nuremberg trials, the creation of the United Nations itself in 1945, the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions in 1949 were part of a global transitional justice process focused on international legal and institutional reforms through which a ravaged and collectively traumatized world sought to reckon with the consequences of the largest and most deadly war in history—one in which an estimated 70 to 85 million people perished—and the mass atrocities that occurred during it, including genocide, forced slavery, concentration camps, and the indiscriminate use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

This global transitional justice process above all instated our current international human rights and humanitarian legal regimes and an unprecedented multilateral institutional architecture designed to prohibit and prevent a repetition of largescale international conflict and mass atrocities, as the Preamble of the United Nations so clearly states. This response to the World War II reshaped and continues to inform the way we understand and conduct international politics 75 years later.  

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Anti-government protesters in Argentina participate in the second “March of Resistance” held on December 9 and 10, 1982. The banner reads “That the 30,000 Disappeared Should Reappear Alive.” (Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti/Wikimedia Commons)

Though, many other commentators argue that the first examples of transitional justice as it is understood and practiced today did not appear until the 1980’s, in Latin America’s Southern Cone, as Argentina and Chile respectively embarked on paths from authoritarianism to democracy. In these countries, broad social movements led by committed civil society organizations demanded the truth about the thousands of forcibly disappeared persons and an end to impunity for those responsible for these and other abuses. The slogan “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) that Argentine and Chilean citizens repeated in the streets during this period still resonates today all over the world. Complying with pioneering decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the new governments in the two countries established truth commissions, which would later serve as models for numerous others and inspire various accountability and reparative measures well into the 21st century.

The end of Apartheid in South Africa and the country’s inspiring transition, including the election of Nelson Mandela as the first Black head of state and the creation of the groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission, marked another major milestone in the development of the transitional justice field and a new benchmark for countries seeking to address past atrocities, deliver justice to victims, and lay the foundation for sustainable peace and democracy.   

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine preside over a session of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996. (courtesy of Boraine family)

Birth of a Global Organization Dedicated to Transitional Justice

By the late 1990’s, leading expert in this nascent field Alex Boraine began contemplating an international organization dedicated to supporting societies undertaking similar processes, providing them with technical assistance, and building knowledge for best practices. A lawyer and former South African politician, Boraine played a pivotal role in his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, serving as its deputy chair and right-hand man to the chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He later travelled to countries around the world emerging from conflict or repression to advise victims, civil society representatives, and state actors.

In 2000, Boraine and other prominent human rights activists and practitioners, including well-known expert on truth commissions and transitional justice Priscilla Hayner, came together under the auspices of the Ford Foundation to explore best strategies for helping societies deal with legacies of massive human rights abuses and achieve sustainable peace. Over the next year, Boraine, Hayner, and others, with the unwavering support of the Ford Foundation, would work tirelessly until the ICTJ was founded in 2001.

Celebrating 20 Years

This year marks ICTJ’s 20th anniversary. For the past two decades, the organization has engaged in more than 50 countries, including Burundi, Cambodia, Guatemala, Peru, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and countries of the former Yugoslavia. Today, we continue to provide technical assistance and other critical support to victims, civil society, governments, and other stakeholders in Afghanistan, Colombia, Lebanon, Nepal, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Uganda, to name a few. We have convened countless victims, activists, and social and political leaders over the years, supporting their quest for accountability and peace and helping them to achieve justice for victims and build networks and alliances, many of which remain strong today.

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A Neplalese conflict victim writes down priorities and proposal ideas during an ICTJ-led workshop held in Mahendranagar, Kanchanpur District, Nepal. (ICTJ)

Since its beginnings, ICTJ has served as a meeting point for transitional justice experts and practitioners and a hub of knowledge, research, and analysis. As a think tank that does, it has been at the forefront of the field’s evolution. Many of its diverse staff members have moved on to prominent roles in other nongovernmental organizations, multilateral institutions, and governments, bringing with them the knowledge and expertise they acquired during their tenure at the organization.

In its 20 years of operation, never once has ICTJ lost sight of its main purpose to stand side by side with victims, affirm their dignity, amplify their voices, and advocate for their rights and for their inclusion in all aspects of a society’s transition. Victims have always been and always will be at the center of all that we do.

As we celebrate ICTJ’s 20th anniversary, I want to acknowledge and thank all those who have contributed to the organization and to its many successes around the world: current and former staff and members of our board of directors and advisory board; donors and partners from the governmental and private philanthropic sectors; allies in public and private institutions; practitioners and researchers who have collaborated with the organization; and, especially, the national and local civil society organizations and victims’ groups and leaders we have supported and worked with over the years, the real champions of justice. Their effort and commitment have made ICTJ’s last 20 years possible. More importantly, these individuals and organizations have demonstrated remarkable resilience and tenacity in their pursuit of justice, often in impossible circumstances. Each and every one of their achievements in this regard is a triumph for humanity as a whole, and ICTJ is proud to have contributed to them.

Longtime ICTJ partner Issoumaila Touré teaches young people in Côte d’Ivoire. A youth activist and lawyer based in Abidjan, he is the founder of the School for Human Rights and Leadership. (Issoumaila Touré)

To make our decades-worth of institutional knowledge, research, and analysis more accessible to the general public, in the coming months we will launch our new multilingual website, which will be more intuitive and optimized for mobile devices. It will also feature an easily searchable resource library that will house all of ICTJ digital publications, multimedia products, and feature stories and opinion articles. We hope all those interested in transitional justice will continue to use and share our resources widely.

A Future for Justice and Sustainable Peace in Times of a Global Health Crisis

The series of crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic this past year—a global health emergency and economic recession, as well as social and political upheaval in many countries and regions—have profoundly changed the world in which we live. But as it has always done, ICTJ adapted quickly, adopting new methodologies to fulfill its mission and reimagining how it engages and convenes stakeholders and supports justice processes on the ground.

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Participants in an ICTJ workshop on memory and art held in Tunisia in September 2020 wear facemasks as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. (ICTJ)

In the countries where ICTJ works, the pandemic has had an especially devastating impact. It has stretched to the limit health systems that were already unreliable or inadequate. It has challenged the credibility of many governments, especially those who have responded poorly to the pandemic, either by mishandling it one way or another or by putting in place repressive measures and using excessive force. Victims in these societies, who often already live in dire circumstances and rely on the informal economy to support themselves and their families, have borne the brunt of the pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences, even as they continue to grapple with the harms resulting from the violations they suffered.  

In other parts of the world, including in mature Western democracies in Europe, North America, and Oceania, the pandemic has brought to the surface deep-seated historical injustices and grievances related to gross human rights violations. With it, broad sectors of society have begun demanding justice for these abuses, often committed decades or even centuries ago, as well as institutional reforms to address root causes such as discrimination, exclusion, and inequity.  

No matter the context, ICTJ works to advance truth-seeking and reparations initiatives, criminal prosecutions, institutional reforms, and other transitional justice processes, which are the basis for building peaceful, just, and inclusive societies and key to preventing violations from happening again.

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Community elders in El Pato-Balsillas, Caqueta, Colombia, talk about the history of the colonization of the region, as part of an ICTJ-led memory project. (ICTJ)

In recent years, even before the pandemic, ICTJ has been adapting its methodology to a fast-changing world and developing innovative solutions to emerging problems. We have challenged assumptions in the field to advance transitional justice processes in countries that are fragile, where conflict is ongoing or peace negotiations are underway, or where justice has otherwise seemed impossible. Looking ahead, I believe ICTJ will continue to evolve with the times, critically rethinking how it works based on research, evidence, and past successes and lessons learned. No matter the obstacles, we will advance our mission, building and leveraging alliances and partnerships with local and national partners and working side by side with those pushing justice initiatives forward in their countries. From 20 years of experience, we know that achieving justice and sustainable peace is a team effort and requires broad participation and the collaboration of all stakeholders. Thus, ICTJ is more determined than ever to continue working with its partners around the world on equal footing to deliver justice and build peace in the years and decades to come.

PHOTO: Syrian families of the detained and forcibly disappeared take part in a demonstration, organized by the Syrian victims' organization Families for Freedom, in London in 2017. (Families for Freedom)