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Justice for past crimes can build a shared future

Peacebuilding and sustaining peace:
Transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict situations

Michelle Bachelet
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Statement to the Security Council

13 February 2020
New York

Excellencies,

I am grateful to Belgium for organising this vital discussion, of such relevance to international peace and security.   I am sure it will contribute to the increasing consideration of transitional justice as a useful peacebuilding tool by this Council and other bodies.

We know that lasting peace is interlinked with justice, development and respect for human rights. We know that peace does not automatically break out when weapons fall silent and atrocity crimes cease. To be able to rebuild lives – without fear of recurrence – and for society to move forward, suffering needs to be acknowledged; confidence in State institutions restored; and justice done.

Demands for justice can be denied – but they will not disappear. In Sudan, the recent popular overthrow of the regime was driven, in large part, by demands for justice, across society, built up over decades of impunity for human rights violations. Across the world, mass protests have once again brought home the power of popular demands for equality, social justice, gender justice, climate justice and fundamental rights.

Transitional justice processes have repeatedly shown they can help to address grievances and divisions. I have seenthis first-hand.  My own experience in Chile convinced me that transitional justice processes that are context-specific nationally owned and focused on the needs and informed choices of victims can connect, empower and transform societies, and thereby contribute to lasting and just peace. The multiple post-conflict and post-authoritarian situations I have witnessed have strengthened that conviction. 

Truth-seeking initiatives not only enable victims to recount their experiences; they also open new spaces within which victims and perpetrators can reestablish the connection. They facilitate the recognition and accommodation of multiple narratives about what has occurred, and the formulation of more searching recommendations for redress and reform.    

Over the past 30 years, various truth commissions in the Americas and elsewhere have greatly contributed to transitional justice processes. Guatemala stands out for its landmark final report of the truth commission “Memoria del Silencio” (1999).  The report provided an authoritative record of human rights violations during the conflict, giving a voice to the victims and analyzing the dynamics underlying 36 years of conflict. It was instrumental in advancing victims’ rights, including in several high-profile judicial cases on conflict-related sexual violence and other crimes, which have resulted in orders for victim-centered and transformative reparations. Sadly, much of this progress is now at risk.

Such processes are often deeply empowering for victims, in particular women, indigenous communities and minorities that have been marginalized. This is vital to healing wounds and binding societies together.

I have just returned from a mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the recent UN-supported consultations in the Kasai region enabled many victims to express their views on truth, reconciliation, reparations, and the prevention of future conflict.  These consultations laid the groundwork for the establishment of a provincial Peace, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. This locally driven project -- like others supported by the Peacebuilding Fund -- establish important links between transitional justice processes, the root causes of conflict and socio-economic reintegration.

While I was in Ituri, I was struck by the strong desire expressed by both the Hema and Lendu communities for transitional justice processes, and their emphasis on justice as the path to peace and reconciliation. The current conflict between the Lendu and Hema was preceded by a previous cycle of violence in 2003 – which did not give rise to a concerted effort to promote accountability. I am convinced this failure to sustain justice processes has been a factor in the revival of violence today. Equally, inability to address the violence of today could place the future at serious risk of renewed violations and abuses. We have learned these lessons, and we know how to address them. The real question is whether there is the collective will to do so.

In many countries, my Office has witnessed the transformative power of transitional justice, particularly their role in shaping guarantees of non-repetition. These comprise a package of recommended measures to prevent the recurrence of conflict and human rights abuses.  They are grounded in deep analysis of the root causes and escalating manifestations of conflict and atrocity crimes. UN fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry have repeatedly played a vital role in bringing facts to light, providing national authorities and the international community with an honest mapping of often complex and long-lasting issues. The contribution of such recent mechanisms in relation to Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, for example, cannot be overstated.

Excellencies,

For a society to truly succeed in establishing a transition to sustainable peace, issues such as systemic discrimination and exclusion, institutional deficiencies, unfair power structures, inequalities and structural impunity must be identified, acknowledged and addressed. Guarantees of non-recurrence will therefore often relate to institution building. It is also essential to ensure the broadest possible participation of civil society organizations in decision-making. In recognition of this value, many transitional justice recommendations emphasize the empowerment of civil society, history education, trauma counselling and memorialization initiatives.

In virtually every conflict or post-conflict situation, it is particularly crucial for military and police forces – and more broadly, all institutions of government – to regain the confidence of traumatised and abused communities. Fair, even-handed and accountable use of public power is central to rebuilding shattered trust in law enforcement. To this end, vetting processes and security sector reforms should be given high priority – noting that a disciplined, professional and principled force is in also the interests of the security forces and government itself.

In Colombia, considerable work is currently being undertaken regarding such guarantees of non-recurrence, in the context of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, which my Office helps to support. The landmark Victims Law of 2011 calls for a wide range of preventive and potentially transformative measures. They include the promotion of mechanisms that prevent and resolve social conflict; legal empowerment of victims; distributive land restitution measures; and measures to dismantle economic and political structures that have benefited from, and given support to, armed groups. I acknowledge the importance of this Council´s support to this key process.

To further this work, the Colombian Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition has established 28 field presences and engaged in non-repetition dialogues at community level. It has also received thousands of testimonies from victims, and individuals from State and military institutions. These and other measures which recognize victims’ rights; tackle root causes of the conflict and its consequences for the people; and promote positive social, economic and political transformation constitute pillars aim to structure a culture of non-repetition in the country. I look forward to hearing Mr. Francisco de Roux addressing you shortly on his experience and insight in this area.

Excellencies,

In its Sustaining Peace resolution, this Council has rightfully emphasized that a comprehensive approach to transitional justice is a key component of the efforts to sustain peace. Creating trust and understanding between former enemies, and crafting a path towards sustainable peace and reconciliation, will always be a  difficult challenge. Transitional justice, we know, cannot be imported or imposed from outside. Locally-led and locally-appropriate permutations of transitional justice have the best chances of success. Without humility and modesty, the risks of failure are real.

However, the international community, and this Council in particular, have key  roles in assisting transitional States in these complex processes – by sharing experiences, mandating international support, and encouraging the implementation of genuinely comprehensive approaches.

A recent example is the Council’s mandating of UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan explicitly to advise on the “establishment and implementation of judicial and non-judicial processes to address the legacy of large-scale human rights violations and abuses as well as international crimes and to prevent their recurrence.”1 Clear mandates such as these provide a strong - and welcome - foundation for UN engagement with Government and civil society.

Transitional justice should not be seen as an alternative to criminal accountability for perpetrators of atrocity crimes. But that criminal accountability – which is vital – should  be accompanied by a broad range of complementary measures to support truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, which help to break cycles of violence.

There is clearly no single way to get the mix of these measures precisely right. But there is a way to get it wrong – and that is to consider that victims' rightful demands for justice are an inconvenient distraction that can be papered over or indefinitely delayed. Failure to engage in such processes will not resolve conflicts: it will fuel recurrence. I encourage the Security Council to acknowledge and make full use of the transformative impact of transitional justice in its consideration of matters of international peace and security.

Thank you.


1 Resolution 2489 (2019)