ICTJ Program Report: Middle East and North Africa


A Tunisian woman casts her vote for the municipal elections at a polling station in Tunis, on May 9, 2010. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest ICTJ Program Report explores transitional justice issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and charts our work in this important and dynamic region.

Claudio Cordone, ICTJ’s program director covering the MENA region, discusses individual country scenarios, prospects for transitional justice processes and explains ICTJ’s involvement and impact.

Cordone speaks about transitional justice principles being at the root of popular uprisings referred to as “Arab Spring” and the challenges facing societies in their efforts to reckon with legacies of dictatorships and recent violence. He describes ICTJ’s efforts to address the impact of violence on women and promote their participation in transitional justice initiatives. The interview provides a thorough overview of ongoing initiatives and future prospects in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory.

We hope this new feature provides a useful insight into the crucial role of transitional justice in this part of the world. We welcome your comments and feedback: please write to communications@ictj.org, or connect with us on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.

For transitional justice processes, the Middle East and North Africa is perhaps the most dynamic area of the world. Demands for justice, truth and accountability have fueled popular revolts from Tunisia to Yemen, resulting in major changes across the region. The landscape, however, remains very complex. ICTJ has worked for a number of years in countries like Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, and Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and is well placed to be of assistance to partners in governments and civil society who are seeking ways of addressing legacies of human rights abuses. What are the most pressing challenges and the most promising scenarios in the region in this context?

In the last year and a half we have seen, throughout the region, huge demands for both social justice and for an end to repression, for freedom from fear and freedom from want in their most dramatic exemplifications.

What followed was a set of very clumsy reactions by regimes that clearly knew little else than to repress these demands with different degrees of violence. Unfortunately, the toppling of Ben Ali and Mubarak was seen by some as a lesson not to make any compromises with the people demonstrating in the streets: you just crush the revolts with as much violence as you can. And that is what’s been happening in Syria.

Nevertheless, no uprising has been put down. In Tunisia we actually have an established process of democratization and transition. Egypt may finally be about to embark on regime change as civilians assert control over the military. The Syrians are fighting in the streets. And in countries where there’s been some sort of settlement, such as Bahrain and Yemen, the situation is not stable. Basic grievances have not been addressed, and they haven’t gone away.

Many- including foreign governments and human rights organizations- were initially caught by surprise by what happened, by the strength of the popular anger and readiness to go all the way to finally end repression. Now we are seeing revolutions transform into unique, long-term transitional processes in many of the countries. How are concepts of transitional justice perceived in the region? Are they seen as foreign, as being imposed from outside in terms of ideas and ideology?

If one moves away from labels and concepts and just talks about the content, then we see that people are thinking and speaking about transitional justice. They may not use the term “reparations," but they’re talking about the need for victims to be recognized and compensated. They may not talk about “memorialization” or “truth-seeking,” but people want to know what happened to those who disappeared. They may not call it "accountability,” but do want the perpetrators punished – sometimes in ways that ICTJ may not agree with, but the concept of punishment for crimes is certainly present and strong.     Image removed.

So, all the elements of what we call transitional justice are in fact very much present, very much directly relevant to people.

In the Middle East and North Africa, ICTJ often encounters the perception that double standards are being applied by the international community when it comes to accountability for human rights abuses. Issues like the quick reaction of the UN Security Council to refer the case of Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as compared to the current absence of Security Council action in the case of Syria are often cited. There is always the issue of ongoing human rights abuses in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory that are largely ignored by the international community and so on. Does this make it more difficult for an international organization to promote concepts of transitional justice in the region?

Definitely there have been double standards by the West, but not just the West, even Russia and China for that matter. Support for Gaddafi by some African countries is also a good example. When the wind changed, countries that had supported him changed sides. As we know, Gaddafi was effectively friends with countries that then went to war against him.

This creates a difficulty because it is sometimes hard for people to recognize, for example, the distinction between what the ICC does and the political decisions of the Security Council that relate to the ICC. And since a lot of noise about justice comes from the West, sometimes you need to explain the difference between an organization like ICTJ and the activities of certain governments.

Can you walk us through ICTJ’s presence and ongoing work in MENA?

We currently have offices in Lebanon and Tunisia. These two bases are not only country offices but are also serving the regions around them. We also have presence in Cairo and Ramallah, as well as a set of experts knowledgeable of the region who regularly visit a number of countries working on their specific area of expertise.

Our most natural partners are civil society organizations, many of whom have been working on these issues for many years. In the last year and a half, in addition to the more traditional human rights organizations, we’ve seen the formation of organizations focusing specifically on transitional justice.

"We’ve seen the formation of organizations focusing specifically on transitional justice."
    There are some governments that have started to demonstrate commitment to transitional justice issues. The most active is the government of Tunisia, where we work in close collaboration with the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice on the national consultation to develop a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice.

We also have good relations with some key ministers in Yemen.

In places where transitional justice processes are moving at a slower pace, we have contacts with officials from various political structures. There are those more open than others, but generally we are increasing our contacts with governments as well as civil society.

We inevitably have to start with Tunisia. Tunisia is a country where the transitional justice process is most visible, most substantive in terms of the government response. The government seems to be taking transitional justice seriously, what are the challenges for Tunisia in this process, and how is ICTJ involved?

We were involved in Tunisia from the beginning of the uprising, talking to the interim authorities, but particularly to the civil society organizations. For the first year it wasn’t entirely clear what the direction was going to be because people were waiting for the elections. However, they still took important initiatives, such as the two commissions of inquiry - one on corruption and the other on human rights abuses during the revolution. And we worked closely with both commissions, offering practical assistance with their work and reports.

Once the new government was formed in December, there was a key political decision at the highest level that there will be a commitment to deal comprehensively with the issue of transitional justice. In April of this year, top authorities of the state called a conference to which ICTJ was invited as a key international partner to launch a consultation at the national level on the strategy for transitional justice.

That process has started, and is coordinated by the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, as it was then renamed. They set up a coordinating committee that we’re part of, to act as observers and advisers. They’re now in the process of consulting in different regions of the country - basically asking people what they think should be done in terms of truth, reparations, criminal justice and institutional reform, with the idea of drafting legislation that defines these measures.

"There is a clear intent to develop a comprehensive transitional justice strategy in Tunisia."
    It is clear already that there is going to be a truth commission. We know there is a strong desire for a program of reparations. Even though there are practical, financial difficulties and difference of opinions, there is a clear intent to develop a comprehensive transitional justice strategy in Tunisia. And we are very much supporting that.

Following the elections in Libya, there is promise of a legitimate government taking these issues forward in a serious way. There are still concerns about the capacity of state institutions in the area of criminal justice, especially in relation to the cases of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdullah al-Senussi. How do you see Libya moving forward, and what is our role there?

Libya had successful elections, so there’s a legitimate parliament in place and we’ll hopefully see a government soon. It will be a government with political legitimacy that the previous, unelected one, could not have. We hope that this government will be committed seriously to addressing the issue of transitional justice.

Previous initiatives by Libya’s National Transitional Council have been very haphazard. We think some laws that have been passed deserve to be revisited. For example, we find it problematic that a law was passed granting amnesty to revolutionaries who had committed crimes. There has also been work to set up a truth commission, although the details have yet to be worked out.

The biggest immediate challenge is that thousands of detainees remain held by various armed groups. The state still needs to find a way to assert its authority in terms of the use of force and detentions. This obviously raises questions not just about the authority of the state, but also about the capacity of the judiciary to handle all these cases.

Then there are high-profile cases such as Saif al-Islam, where I think Libya still needs to demonstrate that they can deal with such cases to justify taking them over from the ICC.

We have visited the country and are keen to support a comprehensive approach to these issues. While we look forward to the new government, we’ve been working with some of the emerging groups in civil society. There wasn’t any space under Gaddafi for these groups to operate but there’s now a lot of interest, particularly from women activists.

How important is transitional justice for a country like Libya to move forward after what was a very divisive conflict, especially in view of the brutal killing of Mu’ammar Gaddafi? There are raw wounds, both from the days of his dictatorship and the conflict itself.

It is crucial to establish what exactly happened, under Gaddafi’s rule and also during the months of the revolution. There are many stories and many numbers, so any discussion on how to deal with the past must be based on a factual account of the past.

For example, that would be critical to resolve the issue of the “black Libyans,” the Tawargha, who are being accused of collectively supporting Gaddafi in the fight against Misrata. Now, it may well be the case that many of them did, but it’s unlikely that all of them did. So, it’s important to assign responsibility individually. And establishing the facts may help the Tawargha to go back to their homes from which they have been expelled.    
"It doesn’t matter whose side you were on: if you’ve killed a prisoner or tortured people, you should be held to account."

If Libya is to establish the rule of law, there will have to be accountability for those on Gaddafi’s side who committed crimes over the 40-plus years and during the civil war, but also on the part of the revolutionaries. There shouldn’t be any exceptions. It doesn’t matter whose side you were on: if you’ve killed a prisoner or tortured people, you should be held to account.

Egypt is regarded by many as possibly the most important process of transition in the region. What is your analysis of the situation in Egypt when it comes to the prospects for transitional justice and accountability, especially in view of the recent elections and moves made by President Mursi?

Egypt looked promising at the beginning and we were getting ready to engage there. However, it quickly became clear that there wasn’t really a regime change. Mubarak had gone, but the system- particularly the one run by the military- was very much there, and in some respects was getting worse: for example, the military trials of civilians. There was also strong hostility towards NGOs, including international ones, and we had to slow down our involvement.

Now, with the initiatives that President Mursi has taken, I think we may be seeing the beginning of real political change. That opens up prospects for transitional justice, because the military had no interest in it.

Where exactly this is going to go? We don’t know, but there’s plenty to be done. The trial of Mubarak was criticized for going after only a few people, and perhaps not with the best of evidence. At the same time, there have been many more trials of protesters, dissenters, than of police officers and others who were involved in the repression.

We are hopeful that with political change in Egypt there will be a shift in its approach towards transitional justice. We are ready to work with both the authorities and civil society, with whom we have always had strong cooperation throughout the years.

Yemen is a country that has had a different scenario - there was a political deal to allow the former dictator, 'Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, to leave the presidency, and many of his former cadre to remain in power. At the same time, we have seen some progress in pursuing a transitional justice process. What are the prospects for transitional justice in view of the existing political deal?

Yemen is the only example in the region where there was a political deal that effectively provided one side with impunity. That is a flaw that makes the situation still fairly unstable because the immunity law is not generally accepted, especially not among the people who initiated the revolt.

"Where exactly this is going to go? We don’t know, but there’s plenty to be done."
    However, even within these political and legal constraints, I think there is scope for progress in other aspects of transitional justice. We are quite impressed by the work of the ministers for Human Rights and for Legal Affairs, particularly by the fact that there is now a draft law on a truth commission to look further back into the past and not just at the period under Saleh, and to establish a reparations program.

That has been achieved after much negotiation, but the government is split and the law on transitional justice is currently with the president. It’s not clear whether it will be adopted, or it will be passed on to what’s called the “national dialogue,” which is meant to address all aspects of the Yemeni crisis - political, structural, constitutional, economic, etc.

We have been working with some of these state officials and NGOs to encourage the development of a sound approach to truth-seeking and reparations. We are aware that the immunity law is an obstacle to prosecutions and that institutional reform will be especially difficult. Reforms of abusive institutions require removing the people who were part of the old regime, but in Yemen they are part of the political deal and this is still creating tension and, at times, violence. However, as a pragmatic organization, ICTJ is trying to make the most of what is achievable, and that is why we are keen to help on the aspects where progress can be made in Yemen.

With the terrible scenario continuing to unfold in Syria, with the scores of people dying every day, is there any point of talking about transitional justice in this context?

It’s extremely frustrating to watch what is unfolding in Syria at the moment, not to be able to give support to the very courageous people that have withstood the reaction of the current regime to what was, initially at least, a peaceful uprising. But we can encourage a debate about the day after an eventual regime change.

It is never too early to start engaging on what needs to be done when this tragedy ends. It is very likely that the regime itself is not going to survive, although it’s not clear what will replace it. But it is important to start talking now with those who are most interested in human rights and transitional justice about what should be done to establish the truth, to ensure accountability for the crimes that are being committed and those in preceding years and decades, how to deal with the rights of the victims, and how to reform an extremely repressive set of state institutions, which will also be badly damaged by the civil war.

ICTJ is at the moment engaging with a number of human rights groups, academics, political activists and others, to contribute to the thinking of how to deal with these issues. Change may take a long time, or it could happen quite rapidly. So it is prudent to devote time and planning to this now.

Our longest engagement in the region is in Lebanon, where we have worked primarily on the issue of the forcibly disappeared. What has been the impact of ICTJ’s work in Lebanon?

In a sense, Lebanon represents the worst-case scenario for the region, with a civil war that lasted more than 15 years, and with several outbursts of violence since it ended. There are still an estimated 17,000 people who are missing, not to mention all the others who suffered throughout that period.

Even now, with neighboring Syria in the grips of a civil war, there is a push in Lebanon for truth about the missing by various associations of victims and NGOs. ICTJ has been central in supporting that: we have provided support to these groups to develop what we think is good draft legislation on the missing and forcibly disappeared. If adopted, the legislation would ensure progress on this painful issue. There’s also a lot of work to be done to prevent the recurrence of the civil war, in particular among the young generation. We’ve been interviewing a lot of people to help tell the story of what it was like living through the civil war, to inform the new generation that hasn’t lived through it and who lives in a society that largely does not want to deal with the past.     Image removed.

Some think that silence is the best way to deal with the past, but more often than not, ignoring the past fuels suspicion, prejudice, and divisions between communities.

This is all work that may not be highly visible or topical in terms of news, but it is important in the long term.

In the discussion of long-term and difficult situation, there is little that can be compared with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. What can transitional justice offer in a context as paralyzed and as burdened with human rights abuse as is the one in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory?

Again, as in many such contexts, the importance of establishing what happened is at the basis of any solution. The current controversial debates, for example about the right of return for refugees, the displacement of Palestinians, is a debate about what happened when the state of Israel was created. What are the grievances on the Palestinian side? What are those on the Israeli side? There’s no official, commonly accepted narrative of what the conflict has been about, so establishing how events unfolded and acknowledging facts are essential in deciding how to address this legacy.

We are working with those interested in these issues. There are groups- though still fairly marginal in society- both from the Palestinian and Israeli side that are trying to bridge the gaps in historical narratives. The issue of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity – such as systematic torture or attacks against civilians – is also fundamental to any process of dealing with the legacy of abuses.

There are also some smaller but important initiatives we are contributing to. We are looking into the impact that the construction of the wall is having on Palestinian property and Palestinian rights. The International Court of Justice established that much of the wall is illegal because it’s placed in occupied territory. We are helping to document the damage the wall is causing because at some point there should be accountability and reparations for this. The project might be small, but it is important in establishing the principles of accountability.

ICTJ is actively working across the region on gender-related issues with a number of important partners. What are the goals we are trying to achieve?

" I think it is clear that people across the region have not only lost their fear, they have also gained a strong appetite for freedom and for engaging in key decisions about their future."
    The overall goal is to address issues specific to women– not just sexual violence but the different impacts that abuses have on men and women. We seek to empower women’s organizations to actively engage with the processes of transitional justice, such as those in Morocco, for example. We’ve been holding many workshops and discussions in different countries, bringing together activists and organizations from the region. The aim is to see how women’s rights and participation in the various processes can best be ensured in a region where discrimination against women is widespread and entrenched in just about every society.

In countries like Lebanon, ICTJ is also exploring how enforced disappearances have impacted women, given the devastating impact that this particular violation has had on women across the region.

Lastly, in your opinion, what is the future of transitional justice processes in the region? It is clear that the changes are irreversible, but where do you think they will lead?

I think that some of these positive changes could be reversible, unfortunately, but progress will also continue. The costs are going to be high, as we’re seeing with Syria. In other places, hopefully, change will not be as violent. But it will take a long time and it will not necessarily be a linear progress. You may have backlashes, you may even have new sets of problems: for example, some incidents of religious intolerance that are happening now did not happen before. But I think it is clear that people across the region have not only lost their fear, they have also gained a strong appetite for freedom and for engaging in key decisions about their future. That is perhaps the most positive thing.

It is important to remember that transitions always take time. The challenges are daunting. But I think that we can be optimistic looking ahead.