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The evolution of transitional justice

Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay is urging States to use the expertise and mechanisms that are readily available to ensure that a human rights approach is taken when trying to achieve lasting peace in countries devastated by conflict. In a keynote address to a conference hosted by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Berne, Pillay described the difficulties of assisting societies with “broken institutions, exhausted resources, diminished security, and a traumatized and divided population.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left, front row) addresses the staff of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) - © UN photoThe Office of the High Commissioner is the lead agency within the UN system in the area of transitional justice. It assists with the development of standards and best practices, offers guidance in the design and implementation of transitional justice mechanisms and advocates for the inclusion of human rights and transitional justice principles in peace agreements.

In her speech, Pillay noted that justice and peace must be pursued simultaneously. “Accountability has proven to be an important ingredient in combating violence,” she said. “States which brought those accused of human rights violations to trial have subsequently prevented or reduced the recurrence of such violations.”

Work is now being done to explore ways in which transitional justice mechanisms can more comprehensively examine violations of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. Truth commissions can be used when appropriate and reparations programmes offer potential opportunities for redressing the needs of victims in the areas of health, education and economic welfare. 

At its latest meeting, the Human Rights Council welcomed the fact that more peace agreements now provide for transitional justice processes and do not offer blanket amnesties. The Council asked for further analysis to be done by the Human Rights Office of the relationship between disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants and transitional justice. 

In her speech, the High Commissioner said, the successful disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants provides the foundation for long-term reform of the security sector and other institutions. It is crucial that combatants who have committed serious crimes are not reintegrated into the national police or military structures.

Also crucial to the transitional justice process, she said is witness and victim protection without which there can be no effective investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of gross human rights violations. Pillay noted that her Office is working to explore the best means of adequately protecting witnesses and victims in post-conflict environments.

19 October 2009