As the world continues to grapple with the deadly coronavirus pandemic and a global economic downturn, United Nations (UN) member states will convene this week for the annual General Assembly, albeit virtually and with a scaled-back program of activities. Originally meant in part to celebrate the UN’s 75th anniversary, which takes in October, this year’s session will now likely focus on a narrow list of agenda items, topped by issues related to these unprecedented twin crises. For this reason, ICTJ would like to recall the vital importance of justice for global peace, security, health, and development by sharing findings from an analysis of the open debate on transitional justice that the UN Security Council held on February 13, 2020, as part of its peacebuilding and sustaining peace agenda.
“Lasting peace is interlinked with justice, development, and respect for human rights. We know that peace does not automatically happen when weapons fall silent and atrocity crimes cease. To be able to rebuild lives without fear of recurrence and for society to move forward, suffering needs to be acknowledged, confidence in state institutions restored and justice done.” — Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Led by the Belgium government, which presided over the council that month, the debate aimed to share knowledge and experiences from transitional justice processes around the world and to encourage the Security Council to better integrate transitional justice best practices and concepts into its ongoing and future peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction initiatives. In her opening remarks, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet underscored the essential role of justice in achieving sustainable peace. “Lasting peace is interlinked with justice, development, and respect for human rights,” she said. “We know that peace does not automatically happen when weapons fall silent and atrocity crimes cease. To be able to rebuild lives without fear of recurrence and for society to move forward, suffering needs to be acknowledged, confidence in state institutions restored, and justice done.”
The open debate had a higher turnout than previous debates held under the same peacebuilding and sustaining peace agenda, indicating a growing interest in transitional justice within the international community. In total, 57 countries made statements at the debate, compared with 54 countries at the debate on the role of reconciliation in maintaining international peace and security in November 2019 and 19 at the debate on post-conflict reconstruction and peace, security, and stability in December 2018. Moreover, nearly half of the participating countries, including Guatemala, Rwanda, Spain, and Ireland, among others, spoke about their national experiences undertaking transitional justice processes to address past human rights violations. This high turnout and the meaningful engagement observed at the debate demonstrate that transitional justice is far from a niche topic, but rather relevant to almost any country in the world. ICTJ proudly welcomes this keen interest in sharing and learning from transitional justice experiences.
Fundamental Principles and Emerging Trends in Transitional Justice
ICTJ conducted an analysis of the debate to gauge how member states understand transitional justice. The findings reaffirmed the central principles of transitional justice as well as emerging trends in the field. Many participants described transitional justice as a victim-centered approach to rebuilding societies emerging from conflict. Along these lines, ICTJ has long maintained that transitional justice, by principle, places victims at the center of all policies and initiatives intended to acknowledge and redress past human rights. It is about shaking up the power dynamics, so that victims can regain their dignity.
About 30 member states stressed that transitional justice must be locally owned and context specific. While true, ICTJ cautions that some states invoke this notion of “locally owned” to deflect attention away from wrongdoing that has occurred within their borders and evade any accountability for it.
“Transitional justice is the set of measures intended to respond to that difficult past [of mass atrocities and massive human rights violations]. It encompasses the full range of tools to provide truth, justice and reparations to victims, with the objective of preventing the recurrence of future conflicts or atrocities.” — Representative of Belgium and president of the debate
The statements given at the debate revealed an evolving understanding of transitional justice within the international community. ICTJ is pleased that the majority of participants highlighted critical aspects of transitional justice, such as its contribution to preventing further violent conflicts and human rights violations, the role of youth, and protecting economic, social, and cultural rights, among others, that in previous years received little or no attention. These emerging themes are interwoven with and essential to justice and peace.
Countries Mentioning Prevention as a Goal of Transitional Justice
Based on ICTJ’s analysis, prevention appears to be widely considered a main goal of transitional justice, with more than 60 percent of the participating countries describing it or guarantees of non-recurrence as central to transitional justice efforts, reconciliation, and sustainable peace. The representative of Belgium and president of the debate said that transitional justice “encompasses the full range of tools to provide truth, justice, and reparations to victims, with the objective of preventing the recurrence of future conflicts or atrocities.” Ukraine’s delegate stated, “despite the absence of a universal solution that would fit all scenarios, the establishment of truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence are among the preconditions for sustainable peace after wars, conflicts, and occupation.” El Salvador’s delegate likewise expressed that “one cannot move toward a future of peace and progress without addressing the troubles of the past and creating comprehensive strategies and mechanisms with a view to achieving truth, justice, memory, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence.”
Inclusion of Women, Youth, and All Segments of Society
Over 40 countries called for the inclusion of diverse and marginalized populations, including women and children, in transitional justice processes, which many pointed out correlates directly with successfully preventing future conflicts and achieving sustainable peace. Some countries also underscored the ways violence particularly harms women, children, and youth. “In all conflicts, women and children are disproportionally disadvantaged and suffer the most,” the spokesperson of Fiji noted.
“Transitional justice mechanisms should also take into account the decisive role and full participation of women in conflict prevention and resolution, as well as their status as victims of sexual and psychological violence… Young people are fundamental actors in reconciliation processes, as well as in the overall maintenance of peace and security.” — Representative of Portugal
However, transitional justice processes must not only involve victims but all segments of society if sustainable peace is to be attained. About half of the participating countries referred to women and youth as agents of change, and a third of them mentioned other actors in society such as civil society organizations, scholars, and community and religious leaders who play essential roles in advancing justice.
Countries Mentioning Inclusion of Women, Youth, and Other Segments of Society
“Transitional justice mechanisms should also take into account the decisive role and full participation of women in conflict prevention and resolution, as well as their status as victims of sexual and psychological violence,” the Portuguese spokesperson said. “Young people are fundamental actors in reconciliation processes, as well as in the overall maintenance of peace and security.” Citing ICTJ’s work, the representative of Lebanon added, “Youth should be given the important role that they deserve to have in transitional justice, as agents of change, as the International Center for Transitional Justice stated. Their participation in transitional justice and reconciliation should be central, and not symbolic.”
Shining a light on other segments of society, the Kenya spokesperson stated, “Formal and informal initiatives to support the transitional justice and national reconciliation processes by local actors, such as civil society, as well as private actors and academia, could make an important contribution.” Similarly, the representative of France asserted, “young people, historians, community and religious leaders, and victims’ groups must also be able to fully play their role.”
Promoting Sustainable Development and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
“We must seek to take into account the root causes of a repressive conflict or government and combat violations of all rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights.” — Representative of Argentina
Transitional justice is closely tied to a country’s development and to the fulfillment of economic, social, and cultural rights. Justice is inseparable from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Specifically, Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Statements at the open debate reflected this link between justice and development. In fact, five countries referenced the SDGs, mentioning SDG16 in their statements. The delegate from Japan, for instance, said, “successful transitional justice initiatives contribute to building and sustaining peace and, in the long term, to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16 by strengthening institutions and establishing the rule of law, which are crucial to making lasting peace possible.”
Countries Mentioning Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
ICTJ described this link in the recent report On Solid Ground: Building Sustainable Peace and Development After Massive Human Rights Violations: “The legacies of serious and massive human rights violations—which encompass large numbers of victims and survivors, widespread grievances, exclusion, lack of civic and social trust, social divisions, and compromised or weakened institutions—create specific challenges for making progress toward sustainable development… Transitional justice is necessary so that these communities and societies [dealing with such legacies] are not in fact ‘left behind’ by the SDGs.”
Countries Mentioning Sustainable Development Goal 16
Moreover, justice should not be limited to addressing violations of political and civil rights; it must also tackle violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. Over a third of participants in the debate spoke about economic, social, and cultural rights and the need for transitional justice mechanisms to uphold and protect them. The representative of the United Kingdom said, “we now possess evidence that, unless there is a proper response for dealing with wider social and economic injustices, the root causes of conflict are highly capable of morphing into other forms of violence and discrimination further down the line.” And the Argentinian representative stressed that “we must seek to take into account the root causes of a repressive conflict or government and combat violations of all rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights.”
From Peace Process to Sustainable Peace
“The Security Council must address impunity using a prevention lens to ensure the non-recurrence of violations, but it also needs to address the indirect causes of conflict or factors that exacerbate conflict, namely, structural violence, discrimination, economic exploitation, unequal power relations and climate justice.” — Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa and Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
About 20 percent of participants asserted that, to achieve sustainable peace, any peace negotiation must incorporate transitional justice. For instance, the spokesperson of Italy stated, “as exemplified by the Colombian peace process, the transformational drive required for inclusive and long-lasting peace flows primarily from a peace agreement that contemplates transitional justice as an inherent part of a comprehensive and interdependent architecture.” The delegate of the Netherlands similarly referred to the Colombian peace deal, saying, “in future peace processes, victims’ voices also need to be heard.” The Brazilian spokesperson moreover called for the Security Council to “make an important contribution to transitional justice processes in post-conflict societies, including by encouraging the incorporation of transitional justice mechanisms into peace agreements.”
Countries Mentioning Peace Processes
Francisco de Roux, Chair of the Colombian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in his remarks stated, “transitional justice is the most comprehensive, dynamic, and promising peacebuilding instrument at the disposal of victims around the world and of peoples who have endured gross human rights violations during situations of internal armed conflict.” In this vein, many of participants called for a more robust integration of transitional justice into the peacebuilding work of the Security Council and the UN system as a whole.
The delegate of Liechtenstein, for instance, urged the Security Council to make better use of the Peacebuilding Commission, whose mandate is to “propose integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery” and “lay the foundation for sustainable development,” “of which transitional justice is a key ingredient.” The representative of Bangladesh also said, “Transitional justice needs to receive enhanced priority in the Peacebuilding Commission’s efforts in the area of peacebuilding and sustaining peace with a view to preventing a sense of inequality, discrimination, exclusion, and other root causes of violence and conflict.” Similarly, Yasmin Sooka, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa and Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, stated in her remarks, “The Security Council must address impunity using a prevention lens to ensure the non-recurrence of violations, but it also needs to address the indirect causes of conflict or factors that exacerbate conflict, namely, structural violence, discrimination, economic exploitation, unequal power relations and climate justice.”
The UN Security open debate shined a spotlight on transitional justice, and member states seized the occasion to demonstrate their nuanced understanding of it and its contributions to building and sustaining peace as well as their commitment to it. ICTJ welcomes and encourages this interest in transitional justice. As members states gather this week for the UN General Assembly, ICTJ would like to take this opportunity to remind them of the commitment they fervently expressed at the debate to justice, conflict prevention, sustainable peace, and the dignity of human rights victims. These commitments—encouraging and inspiring as they may be—however, must not be relegated to global discourse and international fora, but rather accompanied by concrete actions in their own land. ICTJ thus urges member states, particularly those grappling with historical or ongoing injustices, to apply transitional justice principles and approaches in their national policies. In this global health and economic crisis, when vulnerable populations affected by conflict are most susceptible to the ravages of the disease and its social and economic impacts, it is more urgent than ever to reimagine justice broadly and to pursue policies and design initiatives in societies emerging from conflict or repression that not only prevent the recurrence of violence and human rights violations but address root causes of historical injustice and marginalization.
NOTE: ICTJ would like to acknowledge Yuko Yokoi, who conducted qualitative analysis for and contributed substantially to the drafting of this story during her internship at ICTJ in 2020.
PHOTO: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet opens the UN Security Council debate on transitional justice in New York from Geneva through a video conference call. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)