Tunis Conference Summary: Justice in Times of Transition


The international conference on transitional justice 'Addressing the Past, Building the Future: Justice in Times of Transition' concluded today in Tunis, following two days of discussions on justice models and measures implemented in transitions.

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The conference explored justice-related issues arising from recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region, pairing international experiences with current issues facing societies transitioning to democracy. The discussions largely focused on the situation in Tunisia, with participants seeking to use lessons learned abroad and examine whether they can be applied in the local setting.

The first panel discussion covered transitional justice in post-authoritarian settings, with particular focus on experiences from Latin America. Speakers and participants emphasized the need for a holistic and creative approach to transitional justice which takes into account the unique circumstances of the Tunisia case. Questions and debate focused on criminal justice as an integral part of the transition process, but one that must be implemented alongside other measures, such as reparations, vetting, or truth-seeking.

The next session continued discussion of criminal justice and judicial accountability. Speakers highlighted the hurdles facing criminal justice in transitional contexts, including case complexity, the large numbers of both perpetrators and victims, and limitations of criminal trials to provide adequate compensation. Ensuing participant dialogue focused on the need for reform and strengthening of investigative and prosecutorial bodies within the Tunisian judiciary, and underscored that doubt exists within the Tunisian public forum in regards to the judiciary’s independence.

The final panel discussion on Thursday focused on security sector reform (SSR)—the process of changing once-abusive institutions into ones responsive to the needs of society—and vetting, a process by which public employees are screened to ensure they are qualified for their positions. SSR poses particular challenge to countries in the region that do not have a robust history of reforming the security sector. Participants discussed the possibilities of re-education and training for security-sector personnel, and considered the possible dangers of vetting.

Friday opened with a discussion on truth-seeking, particularly on truth commissions and documentation to preserve an accurate record of the past, and the criterion necessary to achieve this. Ensuing debate focused on the work of a commission tasked with investigating recent events and violations in Tunisia, particularly on the types of violations being investigated, the criteria for appointments to the commission, public access to information about proceedings, and methods of gathering evidence and ensuring funding for its work.

The second discussion on Friday considered fulfilling the right to reparations and the different methods by which this can be achieved, such as through direct compensation, memorials, collective reparations, and development efforts. Requests for reparations are already being brought before the Tunisian government, but no plan or mechanism is yet in place to address such demands. Participants raised concerns about how and when reparations measures should be issued, and methods by which address divergent types of violations and needs of victims.

The third session addressed the question of violence against women. When it comes to the transitional justice mechanisms, women are often not adequately represented in consultations leading to establishment of measures, which can lead to the exclusion gender-based violations and considerations. The ensuing discussion addressed the representation of women in different investigative bodies set up in Tunisia, their ability to examine and address sexual violence, the specific forms of violence against women that took place during the protests and the lack of freedom for women to speak about the violence they suffered.

In the concluding session of the second day, representatives of organizations hosting the conference drew particular attention to the situation in Yemen, where the killing of demonstrators is taking place as we speak. A plea was made by a participant from Yemen to “end the silence on crimes against people seeking justice and democracy” there.

The organizers agreed that the conference was a great learning experience for all involved and that international partners, particularly ICTJ, look forward to working with their Tunisian counterparts on transitional justice measures that await Tunisian society.