Imagine your sister or brother was abducted and killed on the way home from school. Or your mother or father had been forcibly disappeared by a military death squad. You would be shocked and grief-stricken, the loss would be overwhelming. And sooner or later you would demand answers. You would want to see justice done.

But what if we were not talking about one or two victims but tens of thousands — people just like our parents, our brothers and sisters, our children – falling victim to murder, torture, abuse, or enforced disappearance; who were made to flee their homes in terror, leaving behind every precious memory of the lives they had struggled to build.

What do we mean by justice in these circumstances? How do we balance the interests of justice and dignity with the pursuit of peace and stability? What can be done to restore the basic values of trust and respect in a system shattered by atrocities perpetrated on an enormous scale? How does a society recover?

Transitional justice is about accountability and redress for victims. It focuses on their dignity as citizens and human beings. Ignoring massive abuses is an easy way out; it destroys the values on which any decent society is built.

Transitional justice asks the most difficult questions imaginable about law and politics. By putting victims and their dignity first, it signals the way forward for a renewed commitment to make sure ordinary citizens are safe in their own countries – safe from the abuses of their own authorities and protected from any violent groups who would attack do them harm.

A woman at a demonstration demanding truth and justice in Brazil (Circuito Fora do Eixo/Flickr)

Why do we do it?

ICTJ was created in 2001 at a time when the world had witnessed the political transformation of Latin America’s Southern Cone, the end of the civil wars in Central America, South Africa’s dismantling of Apartheid, and the collapse of the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe. The societies that confronted these changes all had to grapple in some way with the issue of systematic abuses and atrocities — and they did it in very different ways.

Jaqy Mutere, Grace Agenda, Kenya

Today ICTJ focuses on the same core goals, although the practice of transitional justice has changed and expanded enormously in recent years. There are more organizations working on it; the United Nations has taken steps to establish certain rules and practices. And there are ever more demands being made of it to help countries come to terms with a violent past.

Our work is guided by three core beliefs:

1) All of us are entitled to live our lives safe from repression and the fear of abuse. We all share the same fundamental dignity as human beings, which cannot be taken away simply because we believe something different or look different or come from somewhere different than those with power and the means to hurt us.

2) If our fundamental dignity as human beings is attacked through systematic repression or violence we cannot stay silent. We need to redress the abuses in practical ways; the individuals and institutions responsible must be held accountable in a meaningful way that shows that dignity is of real value – and not just a word.

3) It is not enough simply to ensure measures of accountability and redress. Steps must be taken to restore belief in the values of respect and trust in society, so that abuses do not happen again.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN HCHR

Progress in the struggle for justice and dignity will often be gradual, and there will be setbacks along the way. Efforts to confront atrocities will not solve all of society’s problems, but they will play an important part in shaping the kind of society we live in, however gradually.

Our goals are concrete and tangible:

• Establishing accountable institutions and restoring confidence in them

• Increasing access to justice for the most vulnerable in society in the aftermath of violations

• Ensuring that women play an effective role in the pursuit of a just society

• Restoring respect for the rule of law

• Facilitating peace processes and fostering durable resolutions of conflicts

• Establishing a basis to address the underlying causes of conflict and marginalization

• Making sure the voices of young people are heard on issues that directly affect them

• Advancing the cause of reconciliation

Families of victims of the armed conflict in Peru gather to remember their loved ones and demand justice. (Marta Martinez/ICTJ)

The challenge of our work

Confronting mass atrocities can be overwhelming. Tens of thousands of victims may have a right to justice in a meaningful form, but the reasons the violence took the shape it did will have deeper roots in economic, social and often racial marginalization.

Because of the circumstances, it will almost always be impossible for conventional justice systems to provide victims with the kind of justice they would normally expect. What can be done will depend on who holds power, how stable the country is, what resources are available, how strong victims’ groups and civil society are, how interested the international community is.

If only a small number from a large group of perpetrators are likely to face justice, how do you decide on whom to focus? If the country has a weak prosecution capacity, how do you build it up to be able to take on a dangerous job in a polarized situation? If you cannot unearth the truth about everything that happened, what kind of inquiry allows for a meaningful acknowledgment of what happened, explaining as much as possible about why it happened?

Claudia Paz y Paz, former Attorney General, Guatemala

If the country is destroyed after war, how do you balance the need to rebuild infrastructure with the right of victims to compensation for the murder of the family breadwinner by the police, or the destruction of their home by the army? How do you provide incentives to armed groups to reintegrate into society while ensuring that victims are not ignored? How do you fight the lingering stigma and de-humanization of former enemies that paved the way for atrocities in the first place? How do you ensure such massive violations never happen again?

These are some of the very real questions that we at ICTJ face every day.

Gita Rasailee, Conflict Victims Common Platform, Nepal

Many groups working on human rights focus on exposing and denouncing violations and atrocities. This is vital. But what often proves even more challenging is trying to put the pieces of a broken society back together again. Justice and the rule of law are what binds together a society that prizes human dignity. They are always important, but never more so than in the aftermath of systematic atrocities. This requires staying in the struggle for the long haul and being an active part of the solution. Our work often begins when the cameras leave.

We invest the expertise of our staff from across the world in finding workable solutions and responses to demands for justice. We work with local partners to understand the situation and try to work out what justice can look like under the most difficult circumstances. What can be done and at what pace will vary from place to place.

View highlights of our 15 years of work.

Parties with something to fear from justice may still control some, or most, of the levers of power. The distribution of power will determine much of what can be done. Transitional justice almost always unfolds in deeply polarized societies. Weak institutions may need considerable time and investment before they are able to begin addressing systematic abuses. Civil society and victims’ groups may be able to articulate their demands and organize in some places, but they may be disparate and weak in others, putting less pressure on governments to act. The media may lack independence or be polarized, as they perpetuate specific and divisive narratives. The international community may have a great deal of interest in the country or very little. Support and implementation of justice efforts will depend on all of these things and more.

Finding legitimate responses to massive violations under the constraints of the scale of violations and societal fragility is what defines transitional justice and distinguishes it from human rights promotion and defense in general. 

Best understood, the practice of transitional justice today is the attempt to confront impunity, seek effective redress, and prevent recurrence not in the routine application of normative standards, but in the careful and conscious appreciation of the contexts where it is to be undertaken.

Finding legitimate responses to massive violations under the constraints of the scale of violations and societal fragility is what defines transitional justice and distinguishes it from human rights promotion and defense in general. 

Over the last 15 years ICTJ has played a pivotal role in ensuring the success of the truth commissions in Timor-Leste, Peru, and Sierra Leone through intense advice and assistance at all stages of the commissions’ work; it has provided time-critical support to criminal justice efforts in Guatemala and Argentina; it has been a leader in ensuring victims are mobilized to play a role in policy deliberations in Uganda, Morocco, Iraq, and beyond; it has brought innovation by proposing and devising massive mapping exercises of human rights violations in Afghanistan from 2003-2007 and more recently in Lebanon.

Josselin Bandu Mikindo, Blessed Aid, Democratic Republic of Congo 

Today we work in a large number of countries, including Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Tunisia, among others.

In Colombia we have worked behind the scenes for years on the peace negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC, exploring possible ways of trying to address the massive numbers of murders, enforced disappearances, kidnappings, and other crimes committed during the war. We have partnered with victims’ groups, facilitating their participation in peace negotiations in Havana and with former child soldiers to assist their reintegration into society. We have worked with the national prosecuting authority to help them develop expertise in investigating and prosecuting systematic atrocities, so that those at the top of the ladder face justice.

Sihem Bensedrine, Truth and Dignity Commission, Tunisia 

In Tunisia, we helped develop the historic law on transitional justice that established a truth commission and other justice measures, including by advising technical and parliamentary committees for over a year. We have worked with women’s groups, trade unions, and others throughout the country to ensure they participate in these processes. We helped set up the truth commission and seconded our staff to help it at various stages of the process, including the historic first public hearings in which victims spoke before the commission and millions who followed the proceedings on television, radio and online. We continue to support victims’ struggle for the truth as well as other initiatives as Tunisia struggles to recover from decades of dictatorship.

ICTJ’s Salwa El Gantri (center) consults with members of the "Transitional Justice is Also for Women" Network in Tunisia as they submit their historic collective file to the Truth and Dignity Commission (Tunisia IVD)

Who we work with

Victims and their interests form the foundation of ICTJ’s work. In most countries the call for justice and “Never again!” come from victims’ families and local organizations, including churches, trade unions, and human rights groups. We partner with such groups to make their demands heard by the government and international community, and to have a say in the creation of policies that affect them. Some of our most important impacts have come as a result of working with victims to make them aware of their rights and help them mobilize in defense of their interests in ways that cannot be ignored by politicians or the international community. We ally with them as they build cases against perpetrators, search for the truth about their forcibly disappeared family members, and demand redress for the harms they have suffered.

Olga Amparo Sánchez, Casa de la Mujer, Colombia

When governments, judicial authorities, or international agencies resolve to create laws, policies, and institutions to address past abuses, ICTJ is recognized as the “go-to” organization, uniquely equipped to provide actionable analysis and advice. We work with them to create reparations and compensation programs; and we stay with those programs to help make sure they work. We support prosecutors and investigators as they confront huge numbers of cases with limited resources.

When governments, judicial authorities, or international agencies resolve to create laws, policies, and institutions to address past abuses, ICTJ is recognized as the 'go-to' organization, uniquely equipped to provide actionable analysis and advice.

We work to help establish commissions of inquiry and truth commissions that look at what happened and why — and propose measures to stop violations from happening again. They are important for victims and society, not least because they can provide meaningful acknowledgment of violations and restore political and social commitments to important social values. But they have to be done well, with victims playing a central role. They should not be seen as substitutes for criminal justice.

Moncef Marzouki, former President, Tunisia

Our years of work and effective partnering have made ICTJ a trusted source of advice to peace mediators. We work to ensure justice is not left off the negotiators’ table, to help them see what has worked in previous peace deals to allow justice to be included while allowing parties to put down their weapons. This can include working out the terms for legitimate amnesties and how to put them into effect without violating international law. It can involve explaining the likely role of national and international courts after a peace deal has been signed. It may include working out possible mandates for commissions of inquiry into the causes of the conflict and its consequences. 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women

Good intentions and solemn commitments alone are not enough to bring about meaningful justice and lasting peace in societies devastated by systematic attacks on human dignity. It requires skill, experience, and dedication to continue working long after the cameras have left the scene and the media is focusing on a new story. To be worthy of the trust of those seeking justice when peace is an imperative, we gather knowledge from across the globe, we learn and convene groundbreaking forums to explore and innovate, in search of lasting solutions.

Our research aims to bolster global knowledge about successes and failures in the field of transitional justice. We share this knowledge locally, regionally, and internationally, in publications, media, policy recommendations, working sessions, and international meetings.

To be worthy of the trust of those seeking justice when peace is an imperative, we gather knowledge from across the globe, we learn and convene groundbreaking forums to explore and innovate, in search of lasting solutions.

All this work was made possible over the last 15 years thanks to the crucial support of donors, who recognized why truth and justice matter in circumstances where many would rather ignore victims’ demands and the hard work on ensuring they are met. Over the years they included governments, foundations and individuals, and we proudly count them as our allies in the struggle for justice.

ICTJ’s passion is to stay the course and help provide the means to those willing to try to rebuild a society where each and every life is valued; where the state protects and does not abuse; and where the values of trust, dignity, and respect hold people together, even after the bitterness of conflict and division. We stay the course because we know that — in the aftermath of mass atrocity — justice, truth, and dignity have to be the basis of a new start.

ICTJ's Didier Gbery (right) with members of the Justice and Peace Action Network (RAJP) in Cote d’Ivoire. (ICTJ)

ICTJ at 15

ICTJ’s first fifteen years has shown that the demand for justice and the efforts to rebuild broken societies arise in different contexts and take different forms. While there are reasons to believe that these efforts have been valuable in the countries where they have taken place, there is sadly no shortage of new situations where mass violations and abuses are taking place.

Cissé Aminata, RAJP, Cote d'Ivoire 

For the last five years in Syria we have seen the Geneva Conventions effectively burn before our eyes as, mostly government forces and their international allies have bombed civilians, hospitals, and schools; used illegal weapons; and forcibly displaced millions. Currently we see in the Philippines a campaign of “social cleansing” that has in less than a year taken several thousand lives. A number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are grappling with stalled political transitions, many balanced on the issues of what to do with past dictators’ crimes.

These are only a few of the situations that will occupy ICTJ in the coming years. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the price of justice is eternal diligence. It would be wonderful if we were on a journey of infinite progress, but the truth is that there are many setbacks along the way. The temptation to abuse power is real, even in democracies. The victims of those abuses are people like your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. The bigger the failure and the more egregious the abuse, the more urgent the demand is to reaffirm the dignity of all citizens, and the limits of power.

If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the price of justice is eternal diligence. 

And as we look to the challenges ahead, we will over the next months celebrate 15 years of ICTJ’s contribution to a better world, and bring you stories about who we are and what we do.

We will highlight some of the achievements we are most proud of in our work to promote accountability, acknowledgement, reform, rule of law, the search for the forcibly disappeared, participation of victims and marginalized groups, education and other areas, where transitional justice has played a role in the recovery of societies devastated by massive human rights abuses.

Leila Zerrougui, UN SRSG Children in Armed Conflict

We will share with you some thoughts on the impact of ICTJ’s work from people across the globe who join us in the struggle for human rights, against impunity. These partnerships are of enormous importance to us. We will bring you profiles of some of the people in the trenches of our common struggle to illustrate who we ally with, where it matters the most – on the ground, in the countries dealing with these poisonous legacies.

Our multimedia project on the fight for justice of the families of the disappeared in Guatemala will attempt to depict how this struggle unfolds over time, under the most difficult circumstances.

And as we launch the results of our Justice in Context research project, we will catalyze a discussion about the future of transitional justice and its relation to some of the serious challenges facing us today.

As we celebrate ICTJ at 15 with all of these stories, we will also introduce you to our most valuable asset – ICTJ staff. You will meet friends who have been part of ICTJ’s family over the years and listen to live conversations with people who work at ICTJ today. We will celebrate those who make ICTJ a trusted ally to all those seeking truth and justice around the world — from Nairobi to The Hague, from Kinshasa to Kathmandu, from Tunis to Bogotá. 

Girls smiling in a Barranquilla neighborhood mostly populated by people forcibly displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia (Camilo Aldana Sanín/ICTJ)

Explore ICTJ's impact around the world:

15 Years of Highlights.


Header photo credits (starting from top left): Thousands of Colombians marching on the streets of Bogotá to demand peace (Astrid Elena Villegas/ICTJ); ICTJ’s Salwa El Gantri (center) consults with members of the "Transitional Justice is Also for Women" Network in Tunisia as they submit their historic collective file to the Truth and Dignity Commission (Tunisia IVD); Former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt facing trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in Guatemala (Sandra Sebastián/Plaza Pública); ICTJ’s Myriam Raymond Jetté with representatives from the military courts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ICTJ).

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