The message from the new generation of young people in the Middle East and North Africa is clear: they want a “relationship between the State and its people which is built on the rule of law and respect for human rights”.
Addressing a consultation in Cairo on transitional justice developments in the region, senior representative from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mona Rishmawi said, “for decades, people in the region have suffered from the denial of their basic rights. They endured torture, arbitrary detention emergency rules, the denial of freedom of speech and association, the shrinking of political space and the forging of elections, when and if they took place.”
Rishmawi told the participants from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, among others, that, “the wall of fear and silence has fallen and the desire and determination of people to claim their rights regardless of the personal sacrifices and pain is being proven on a daily basis.”
The movements for reform and democratic change which started in Tunisia two years ago generated uprisings across the region.
Transiting from authoritarian regimes to systems of governance based on participation, accountability and justice requires a process of transitional justice, Rishmawi said.
“Transitional justice relies on four equally important [interlinked] pillars,” she said, “prosecution, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform.”
According to Rishmawi, “The notion [of transitional justice] also addresses the establishment of effective governance based on the democratic principles that every citizen has the right directly, or through freely chosen representatives, to have a say in the direction of his/her country.”
The UN Human Rights Office is the lead agency on transitional justice within the United Nations community and is working in collaboration with others, in more than 25 countries globally, in policy development, standard setting and training, capacity building, and coordination.
Transitional justice may include individual prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, vetting and dismissals, or a combination of those, all associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.
Transitional justice processes are on-going in several countries in the Middle East North Africa region, assisting in dealing with serious past abuses including extra-judicial killings, widespread torture, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention.
UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff, in his address to the regional consultation stressed that, “transitional justice is not a distinct form of justice, but a strategy for achieving justice in the aftermath of massive violations.“
De Greiff took up his appointment as the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence by the Human Rights Council in March 2012.
“The four measures covered by the mandate - truth-seeking, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence – offer a way forward,“ he said, “and can assist in providing recognition to victims, fostering trust and reconciliation, and strengthening the rule of law.“
Noting that the field of transitional justice has assumed much greater significance in recent years, De Grief said that the question now is “not to ask whether to deal with the past, but rather to ask how.“
“A growing number of countries, he said, have successfully moved from periods of repression and abuse to a brighter future incorporating respect for and implementation of human rights and rule of law standards, as well as development”
Participants at the regional consultation discussed a number of issues requiring particular focus in the development of transitional justice programs: national consultation and participation through the initial planning phases and beyond: special measures to allow meaningful participation by women; and inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights in transitional justice processes to ensure the root causes of repression are addressed.
The consultation also considered the reform of national security institutions to prevent the recurrence of violations. “There is little doubt,” Rishmawi said, “that the main structures to be reformed are the security institutions, formal and informal,… to ensure that they are properly accountable and that they do not behave as if they are above the law.”
She emphasized that a cornerstone of the UN approach to transitional justice, is the issue of amnesties: “Amnesties are unacceptable if they prevent the prosecution of individuals who are criminally responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other gross violations of human rights,” she said.
The consultation was a joint initiative of the UN Human Rights Office, the United Nations Development Programme and the UN Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, with the participation of UN Women.
15 November 2012