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The future for transitional justice

“What is the relationship between reconciliation and justice? Can two sides reconcile when both might be facing a trial? How can justice be perceived as fair, and not as a winner’s justice?”.

Human rights and legal experts met in Geneva to examine progress made and future directions of transitional justice - © OHCHR PhotoThese questions came from Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia reflecting on transitional justice. He then added that impunity for abusers is not an option.

Drawing on his experiences in Somalia, Ould-Abdallah told a recent seminar in Geneva that, “Impunity and lack of respect for human rights have fuelled the conflict and encouraged phenomena such as piracy and human trafficking.”

“Impunity is contagious,” Ould-Abdallah said, “a vaccine should be created against it.

“Addressing impunity promotes both dignity and peace,” he said.

The concept of transitional justice recognises that countries must come to terms with large-scale human rights abuses in order to ensure accountability and achieve justice and reconciliation. Transitional justice comprises a range of processes which may include both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms - prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform – or a mix of some or all of these.

At the seminar over two days on 27 and 28 May, representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), its field offices, other human rights experts, UN partners and representatives from non governmental organisations, reviewed experiences in countries around the world and discussed the future directions of transitional justice.

OHCHR, which has the lead role in this area within the UN system, has been supporting the development of standards and operational tools which can assist practitioners working in different countries.

Deputy High Commissioner, Kyung-wha Kang observed in her opening address to the meeting that over the past decade, OHCHR has actively supported transitional justice programmes in more than 20 countries and regions.

Kang recalled that “justice and peace are not contradictory” and that justice is, in fact, critical to sustaining peace. She added that impunity can destabilize peace efforts.

The discussions further explored whether transitional justice also has the potential to more comprehensively address the root causes of conflicts. Participants spoke of the need for a multi-faceted approach that addresses the violations of economic, social and cultural rights that people experience every day and which are inextricably linked with issues of transitional justice. Without access to food, water, education, health services, employment and land the achievement of peace and rule of law is very difficult.

Ould-Abdallah described a “new paradigm” to address complex situations in countries like Somalia. It must be based he said, “on the linkage between human rights, justice, security and development.”

“Justice in peace processes,” he said, “is not limited to criminal justice, but must also address questions of social justice. If these are not answered, they might re-ignite a conflict before peace is effectively achieved.”

3 June 2009