A Historic Opportunity for Justice in the Region That Must Not be Missed

The conference "Transitional Justice and the MENA Region: Challenges and Possibilities" concluded with a summary of topics discussed during the two days by Ragab Saad, researcher of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights. Saad listed the discussed challenges facing Middle East and North Africa countries going through different stages of transition from dictatorships and repression.

There are significant differences state to state in the varying forms of human rights abuses and possible transitional justice measures, he said. The goals of the measures that could be applied, including criminal justice and accountability measures, truth-commissions, memorials, and institutional reform, are common – dealing with the legacies of abuses to achieve democratic, stable societies.

Saad sublimated points addressed by individual sessions, emphasizing the critical issue of fairness of trials and other transitional justice mechanisms. The importance of the concept of fair trial was best illustrated in the issues surrounding the criminal trials against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the use of military courts against activists in Egypt.

He underscored that revolutions in most countries have not removed all the remnants of the former regimes and that major challenges remain in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the region. The existing justice initiatives mainly don’t address the decades of human rights violations, but are limited to the violence during the demonstrations or corruption.

To succeed, transitional justice in the Middle East and North Africa clearly requires the will of political parties. The people who were the engine of the momentous changes in the region should not be made to pay more and higher price to achieve these goals.

In the opening of his concluding statement, Habib Nassar, director of ICTJ’s Middle East and North Africa program, mentioned the case of Yemen and how important it is not to forget what is happening there. He thanked partner organizations, participants and especially the co-organizers from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights. “I commend all of you, especially the families of the victims who testified here; they are the right holders of transitional justice," stated Nassar.

“The region is undergoing historic changes and this is a unique window of opportunity to achieve justice for the people, and we have a responsibility. We should not miss this opportunity.” The transition is not progressing well in many countries, continued Nassar, in Syria and Yemen crimes are being committed as we speak; even here in Egypt things are complicated and abuses continue.

However, taking the positives from this conference, the interventions demonstrate what high-level expertise exists here and we should use this potential to draw up policies and strategies in different countries. Transitional justice has become integral to the political discourse in comparison with several years ago when nobody knew what it meant. The concept is now present and developing, like in the case of Libya where transitional justice is one of the main pillars of the reconstruction process.

“The pivotal concept to transitional justice is in the preservation of human rights, we must remember that,” Nassar stressed, “Ben Ali and Mubarak used excuses of exceptional situations, terrorism, etc, as a reason for denying human rights. Revolutionary context must not become our excuse -- the fact that we are amidst revolutions does not mean that we can afford departing from the sanctity of human rights.”

Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of CIHRS, concluded by saying that the human rights community carries a big burden, and a responsibility to interact worth political forces to sow the seeds of transitional justice.

We must always keep in mind that transitional justice could be seen by the governments as a way to act against its opposition, which must remind us about the importance of enshrining human rights in any transitional justice effort. We shall shoulder that burden with an awareness that transitional justice expertise has developed here in the region, so that we can build on the experiences from abroad, concluded Tawab in closing.