A Landmark UNSC Discussion on Transitional Justice


The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has considered transitional justice on several occasions in the past and included many of its components in country-specific resolutions, two of the most recent examples being the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The UNSC has also stressed the links between transitional justice and the other items on its thematic agenda including women, peace and security, and children and armed conflict, and it has made explicit reference to transitional justice as a key part of efforts to sustain peace.

Yet, on February 13, the Security Council held its first open debate focusing solely on transitional justice. The Belgium government, president of the UNSC during February, organized this session under the peacebuilding and sustaining peace agenda item. Its aim was to provide an opportunity to reflect on national transitional justice processes, to exchange best practices and lessons learned, and to examine the support of the Security Council and UN Peacekeeping operations. The high turnout of member states was positively surprising, as more than 60 speakers signed up to present their official statements. A few minutes before the debate started at 10 am, the Security Council chamber was filled for a session that lasted into the evening.

Three initial briefings set the tone of the debate. Michele Bachellet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reflected on several national processes from all over the world, including her own personal experience in Chile. She stressed the importance of providing justice and accountability as a way to prevent the recurrence of violence, adding that this was a lesson that the UN had already learned and had the tools to pursue but wondered if the collective will exists to do so.

The Chair of the Colombian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Francisco de Roux, delivered his speech on behalf of the victims of Colombia, and defined transitional justice as the best national and international response to the tragic wars waged against humankind. His victim-centered remarks, powerfully pointing to the more than 100,000 people missing in Colombia and emphasizing the high level of ethics that transitional justice processes require, resonated strongly within the walls of a chamber in which too often diplomatic language and calculated words disguise the most acute problems instead of addressing them.

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, reflected on the long-term nature of both transitional justice processes and victims’ struggles for truth and justice. She illustrated this with examples from her own country, South Africa, linking post-apartheid transitional justice from decades ago with pending inquests that were recently reopened, renewing hope for justice for victims and families.

Numerous countries spoke about their own experiences addressing a history of massive human rights violations. Rwanda recounted how its search for truth and justice was not about reprisal, but about “healing, educating and building relationships on the strength of communities and collective interests.” The Gambia described its efforts to undertake a country-wide consultation. El Salvador warned against the “consequences of a partial approach to a conflict” that continue to impact its search for peace today.

Many other countries followed, acknowledging the need of transitional justice processes that both address the root causes of conflict—paying special attention to violations of social, economic, and cultural rights—and contribute to preventing the recurrence of conflict. Many also accurately linked this approach with the advance of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in those countries that are still dealing with the legacy of conflict, repression, or authoritarian regimes.

Most of the interventions recognized a gender focus, requiring the meaningful inclusion and participation of women, as invaluable and necessary. It was also encouraging to observe that more countries now include the meaningful participation of youth as a key factor for successful transitional justice processes. Overall, a consensus emerged that there should not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, that processes have to be tailored to the context, and that local ownership is another vital element of success. However, many countries also gave in to the temptation to misuse this argument in order to reject, or set at a distance, international standards on victims’ rights and universal human rights protections.

While the debate showed that transitional justice and its policy language is already incorporated at the highest political level, several comments exposed the tensions connected to the balance between peace and justice. The interventions revealed the frictions among member states on the most severe conflicts that currently dominate the global political agenda (Syria, Israel-Palestine, and Myanmar, to name a few), and generally acknowledged the difficulties of translating policy imperatives into practice. This is a clear signal that the greatest challenges to pursuing justice and accountability are found mainly on the ground, and we must continue to listen, support, and work side by side with victims.

PHOTO: The Chair of the Colombian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Francisco de Roux, as he briefs the Security Council meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace: Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations on February 13 2020. (United Nations)