Sison: Transitional Justice Needs “Victim-centered Approach”

Michele J. Sison, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, told an IPI audience that as societies attempt to come to terms with a legacy of past abuses, their transitional justice processes must focus on the victims, not just the perpetrators.

Transitional justice should focus on a “victim-centered approach that responds to the needs and perceptions of families, and the needs and perceptions of communities, as opposed to solely punishing perpetrators,” she said.

Ms. Sison highlighted the importance of including civil society from the beginning of the process. “These transitional justice processes must put victims and vulnerable groups at the very center of our strategies,” she said.

She emphasized it was especially important to consult marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities and youth. “These groups must play an active role in the design and in the implementation of a transitional justice mechanism,” she said.

Ambassador Sison’s remarks opened a panel discussion on “Civil Society and Transitional Justice Processes: How International Actors Can Promote a More Inclusive Approach,” held at IPI October 29th, 2015. High-level panelists discussed how international actors could contribute to processes that ensure justice, accountability and reconciliation.

The event also marked the launch of a new US State Department report, Funding Transitional Justice: A Guide for Supporting Civil Society Engagement. The report is designed to offer guidance on how donors may better integrate civil society into their transitional justice funding strategies.

María Emma Mejía Vélez, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the UN, brought a first-hand perspective on transitional justice to the panel.

Colombia has been embroiled in civil war for six decades. The government and the guerrilla group Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) began a peace process in October 2012, and the negotiations yielded an agreement this September.

The resulting innovative transitional justice framework, Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición (Cohesive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and No Repetition), was unveiled in Havana, along with a timeline to finalize negotiations by March 23rd, 2016.

In a show of good faith, FARC promised to disarm and demobilize within 60 days of signing the agreement.

Ms. Mejía said Colombia’s transitional justice framework “aims to get the maximum possible satisfaction for the victim’s rights.”

She said the framework would achieve this through four key pillars: a truth commission, a special jurisdiction for peace, a special unit for persons who have “disappeared,” and administrative measures for reparation.

The Ambassador added that Colombia aimed to fulfill all of its international commitments in the peace process, the first to be held since the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), entered into force in 2002.

On the negotiations, she said it would be “easy to say, ‘It’s over with,’ peace, and take the photos,” after they conclude.

Instead, she implored the audience to remember that achieving an agreement is only a first step. “The work will begin March 23rd,” she said. “It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning of a society that has not been reconciled to find out how we will be able to live together, those who have been confronted for so many long decades.”

Geir O. Pedersen, Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN, addressed the importance of civil society for justice, accountability, and reconciliation. “It is doubtful that any transitional justice institution has ever been successful without engaging civil society,” he said.

Mr. Pedersen emphasized three elements of transitional justice—jobs, security and justice—that can make possible democratization, sustainable development and peacebuilding. “It is a no-brainer,” he said. “We need both the state and civil society if we are to be successful in working on these issues.”

Habib Nassar, Executive Director of the Global Network for Public Interest Law (PILnet), spoke to his experience in civil society advocacy in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region.

Mr. Nassar lamented “the growing role of the international and a standardization of the field” of transitional justice. This has “led to a situation in which the local actors are no longer in control of the design of their own processes,” he said.

He outlined the consequences for justice processes when international actors disproportionately influence them. “Transitional justice is becoming the province of technocrats, bureaucrats, and then, the technical is privileged over the political, the general over particular, international over local.”

Homogeneous approaches to transitional justice “cannot accommodate local complexities,” Mr. Nassar said. “The standardized policies and mechanisms generate a rigidity that really paralyzes local creativity. We come and present really fancy nice models, and people are automatically paralyzed because they think that this is the only way to do it.” This is particularly troublesome in the MENA region, where such innovation is desperately needed, he said.

Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, placed the development of transitional justice in its historical context.

Early transitional justice processes began in the 1980s in highly institutionalized countries like Argentina, Chile, Czechoslovakia, and South Africa. “When you leave that set of countries behind and start thinking about the fate of transitional justice in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and some of places which now are potential subjects of transitional justice, to some extent it should not be surprising that results are more ambiguous, and challenges significantly higher,” he said.

Contemporary transitional justice processes are unfolding in countries where there has been war, not just authoritarian governance. Today’s victims do not experience “violations that come about from the abusive exercise of state power—they are the violations that come about through something that looks more like social chaos,” he said. “Because violations are different, the means by which they ought to be redressed, one would think, also ought to be different.”

Local conditions matter, Mr. de Greiff stressed. “We need to think much more about how to make transitional justice measures more context-sensitive, while at the same time satisfying and respecting the universalistic commitment from which they come about,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur closed the panel by sharing a disheartening realization he reached while preparing recent reports for the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council. “Strictly speaking, the violations that we are talking about cannot be repaired,” he said. “We do lots of things to mitigate their consequences, but nobody brings back the dead, nobody is un-raped, nobody is free after spending 7 years in prison, those years are gone. So instead of focusing so much attention on correction and redress, we ought to be spending much more time on prevention.”

The panel was co-hosted by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) at the US Department of State, and Public Action Research.
Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, moderated the conversation.

Related Coverage:
Funding Transitional Justice (Public Action Research, 2015)
Remarks on the Launch of “Funding Transitional Justice: A Guide for Supporting Civil Society Engagement” (US Mission, October 29, 2015)

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