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Transitional justice

Major rethink needed for the prevention of mass atrocities

04 May 2018


To effectively prevent mass atrocities before they occur, transitional justice is an indispensable means to contribute to sustainable peace and security, and is paramount to break cycles of violence.

“Prevention is not a form of crisis response. It goes much further than early warning efforts,” Special Rapporteur on transitional justice, Pablo de Greiff told the Human Rights Council.   “Anything capable of triggering an early warning system suggests that early and structural prevention work has either not taken place, or has failed.”

A joint study presented to the Human Rights Council by de Greiff and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng, showed that the preventive potential of transitional justice has not been sufficiently recognized. This is mainly due to the tendency to regard transitional justice as a past-oriented policy only, de Greiff said.

“This neglect is surprising, as the promise of ‘never again’ has always been an important motivation for implementing transitional justice measures,” he said.

Transitional justice contributes to sustainable peace and security by helping to break cycles of violence and atrocities, the study states. In doing this, it delivers a sense of justice to victims, and prompts examinations of deficiencies in State institutions that may have enabled, if not promoted, those cycles, the study continues.

The study highlights some of the major reasons why prevention work has failed so far: failure to take early and timely action in the face of increasing patterns of systematic and widespread human rights violations; lack of genuine political commitment; lack of long-term, and sustained financial investment; and the fragmentation of knowledge and expertise.

The study also demonstrates civil society’s enormous potential in contributing to prevention. Both UN experts agreed that civil society could have an increasing importance beyond their common roles of monitoring, reporting and advocacy to help push further use of transitional justice methods.

The United Nations is in a privileged position to facilitate the elaboration of a comprehensive prevention framework. Yet, it is crucial to add substance and meaningful content, nudging on the links between prevention and human rights, de Greiff persistently argued.

The joint study represents the final official presentation of de Greiff, who was appointed as Special Rapporteur in 2012. During his tenure, he has addressed burning challenges in political transitions through a deep and continuing engagement with governments, civil society and particularly victims. He echoed to the highest authorities the suffering of the victims seeking truth, justice and reparation for the blatant violation of their rights, and assisted governments in devising comprehensive strategies to address the past and prevent the well-known tendency of ‘turn taking’ in politics. The former Special Rapporteur has written several reports on the topic of prevention, and has consistently called for a comprehensive and strategic prevention framework.

Pablo de Greiff is succeeded by Mr. Fabián Salvioli, whose term started on 1 May 2018.

4 May 2018