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Sustainable Peace and Development After Massive Human Rights Violations: Making the Case for Transitional Justice


This blog was first published on the website of the International Center for Transitional Justice. The activities of the Working Group are supported by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law’s Knowledge Management Fund.

On February 8, at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the high-level international Task Force on Justice met to finalize its report on increasing access to justice for people and communities around the world—or reducing the "justice gap"—as an integral element of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Task Force’s recommendations will play a crucial role in shaping discussions leading up to and during the 2019 UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development this summer and fall, when UN members states meet to review and follow up on the 2030 Agenda and adopt political declarations. Drawing on the relevant data to propose evidence-based solutions to justice problems, and taking a people-centered approach, the Task Force is using its report to argue that justice and the prevention of violence constitute a necessary platform for development.

On the same day, members of the Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG16+ comprising NGOs, international organizations, and government representatives presented their working paper, which makes the fundamental point that while the SDGs are universal, they cannot be achieved in the same way in every context. We contend that massive and serious human rights violations create conditions in which extraordinary justice interventions are required to make progress toward sustainable peace and development.

In countries experiencing or emerging from violent conflict or repression, reducing the justice gap is often largely about addressing massive numbers of violations and the widespread grievances associated with them. In Syria, for example, where more than 400,000 people have died as a result of the war, more than 12 million have been displaced, and tens of thousands are missing or disappeared, or in Colombia, where the toll of the armed conflict included more than 8.5 million victims, the scale and severity of abuses requires extraordinary responses to meet society’s immense and complex justice needs. Today, ongoing crises or cycles of violence affect countries such Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Myanmar.

Transitional justice represents a set of such extraordinary responses, often delivered during critical junctures such as transitions from war to peace or authoritarianism to democracy. These practices and principles are meant to both redress mass violations and identify avenues to address the root of those violations, deep-seated societal issues such as gender inequality and social exclusion. While including criminal accountability, it is underpinned by a broader understanding of justice that takes into account a range of victim needs and societal priorities. Communities in countries that have experienced massive rights violations must not be left behind by the SDGs.

Germany and other post-World War II European countries, as well as Argentina, Chile, and other countries in Latin America, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and former communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe have for years or decades all had to address and continue to address the legacies of mass violations. Countries currently engaged in complex processes of dealing with their pasts include Tunisia, Colombia, Nepal, and The Gambia. And countries now dealing with conflict, repression, and economic and social injustice such as Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela will have to do so in the future.

Using the same prevention lens as the Task Force, the Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG16+ contends that context-specific and innovative responses to mass human rights violations can help to reduce the recurrence both of violations specifically and of violent conflict and authoritarianism more broadly. It can do this in ways that contribute to different SDGS and targets, such as increasing access to justice, strengthening the rule of law, making institutions more legitimate and trustworthy, repairing divisions between citizens and groups, addressing marginalization and corruption, and promoting gender equality.

But in order to foster access to justice and inclusive institutions, transitional justice cannot be limited to top-down interventions driven by national state institutions; local governments and civil society and other non-state actors must play a vital role. Further, the scale of injustice itself means that victim participation in the design, functioning, and implementation is critical to ensuring local ownership, legitimacy, and effectiveness.

While any political intervention can lead to the risk of short-term instability, transitional justice can help to build bridges between the past, present, and future. For example, its application in political settlements, which can be dynamic, can help them to become more inclusive in the long run. Transitional justice can also help to dispel the notion that justice is about the past and development is about the future by grounding ad hoc mechanisms in more permanent institutions, such as the national justice system.

The Working Group calls on the international community, including policymakers, donors, and practitioners, to:

  • Provide consistent support and investment to enable context-specific transitional justice as a tool of sustainable peace and development.
  • Formulate development indicators according to the scale and seriousness of the injustices experienced during violent conflict and repression.
  • Assess the value of transitional justice to development targets according to its process and long-term contribution to change rather than short-term impact.
  • Recognize the critical role that transitional justice can play in the prevention of rights violations, violence, repression, and violent conflict.
  • Include within the notion of guarantees of nonrecurrence a range of institutional, legal, and constitutional reforms as well as civil society, faith-based, and cultural interventions.
  • Adopt approaches to transitional justice that address gender hierarchies, discrimination, and exclusion while dealing with violations against women.
  • Promote a conception of transitional justice that address all human rights violations—including economic, social, and cultural violations.
  • Design transitional justice to enable the unsettling of systems of inequality, exclusion, discrimination, and societal division and other structural drivers of violence.
  • Encourage innovative justice solutions—beyond templates—driven by local and regional priorities and accounting for local political dynamics.
  • Fund civil society and victims’ efforts to organize, network, and advocate for their rights rather than limiting it to officially led initiatives.
  • Provide the tools, space, and access to information to victims and affected communities to participate in and shape every stage of transitional justice.
  • Support domestic efforts to change underlying distributions of power so that space opens up for local transitional justice initiatives.
  • Promote participatory transitional justice that enables civil society, victims, marginalized and vulnerable populations, and children and youth to meaningfully participate.
  • Emphasize the long-term nature of transitional justice and establish links to permanent structures such as national justice systems.

The SDGs do not refer explicitly to massive human rights violations, but they do provide a framework of objectives to which transitional justice contributes. Furthermore, because they set out a universal agenda, the SDGs also provide political opportunities to make the case that the legacies of massive human rights violations should be addressed as part of that agenda. On February 8, the Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG16+ will being to make this case, and will continue to make it throughout the run up to the 2019 HLPF.

The Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG16+ has developed a number of recommendations. For the list of these recommendations, click here.

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