How Can International Actors Support Transitional Justice Processes?

19 October 2016   ·   FriEnt, PeaceLab2016 editorial team

On 27 September 2016, the FriEnt workshop Pathways to just and sustainable peace: How can international actors support transitional justice processes? brought together representatives from civil society, academia, and government ministries at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin.

Since the late 1990s transitional justice has become a key element of international engagement in peace processes around the globe. In situations that are all too often overburdened by a high number of civilian victims, weak state institutions as well as poverty and exclusion, transitional justice is a connector between short-term stabilization, peacebuilding and the prevention of violence. Addressing – and redressing – past abuses and injustice by different means strengthens the sense of citizenship, contributes to building trust between state institutions and society, and re-establishes relations (“reconciliation”). It ensures the sustainability and lasting quality of peace processes.

A lot of experience has been accumulated to date. Participants of the workshop highlighted some key lessons learned and provided recommendations on how Germany could support dealing with the past processes. 

Develop a stronger German profile on transitional justice

Germany’s unique set of experiences in dealing with its own past both after 1945 and after 1989 and its “non-aggressive” foreign policy lends the country a high degree of credibility and legitimacy to get engaged in transitional justice processes. At the same time, states are noticeably absent in this field – even though they are urgently needed to support sensitive political processes and to strengthen the work of multilateral institutions. Germany should therefore fill this gap. It should build on its comparative advantages, take on an active role, and develop a strategy to support dealing with the past processes and transitional justice (“Vergangenheitsarbeit”). Such a strategy should provide a conceptual framework, describe the linkages between different policy fields and approaches, and outline instruments for programming and implementation. The German experience and institutions that deal with the past in Germany should also feature in this strategy, but without “shopping around for any model or instrument”. Germany should focus on an enabling and facilitating role. Finally, it is crucial to pursue a self-critical, politically sensitive and flexible approach, and to sustain partnerships with different bilateral and multilateral actors and civil society to build credibility and effectively support transitional justice processes.

Don’t just tick boxes – find creative solutions

Dealing with the past and transitional justice is not about any particular instrument or mechanism: it is a highly complex political and societal transformation process which raises many dilemmas and needs patience and a long-term commitment. Too often, external actors have simply applied blueprints or implemented externally designed measures, leaving very limited space for local stakeholders. Local ownership, however, is crucial for the legitimacy of transitional justice initiatives. Therefore, as participants mentioned during the workshop, international actors should “step back” and play an enabling role because they “cannot do the healing on behalf of somebody else”. They need to understand the challenges and the complexity of a specific context, develop political and culturally sensitive approaches, and support creative solutions. The different elements of transitional justice – truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence – can and should be translated into a broad variety of measures. Moreover, formal and institutionalized transitional justice initiatives on a national level should be accompanied by support to decentralized, small-scale and innovative approaches to memorialization, dialogue, trust-building, and healing.

Take a closer look at local stakeholders

Context specific approaches and ownership also require taking a closer look at local stakeholders and their needs in transitional justice processes. In addition to supporting political actors and state institutions, it is crucial to strengthen the voice of and space for civil society, especially in situations where the political will to address past abuses is lacking. International actors should build sincere and longer-term partnerships, and be very cautious in applying black-and-white categories such as “victims” and “perpetrators”. In many conflict situations, such simple categories do not exist. While the participation of victims in dealing with the past processes is important, encompassing approaches to transitional justice also need to facilitate the inclusion of groups such as former combatants or repressive police forces that have perpetrated violence. As one participant put it: “reconciliation needs initiatives that bring in the enemy”. Moreover, international actors should not simply identify those local partners that are convenient to reach in capital cities and that may be closest to Western projections of ideal local partners. These partners might be less relevant to the actual process of healing than harder-to-reach actors with genuine access to communities. International support should also focus on engaging with informal networks, religious actors, and traditional institutions.

Address different dimensions of justice and tackle the root causes of conflict

Transitional justice policies must respond to various justice needs of war-torn societies with a longstanding history of mass violence, socio-economic exclusion, authoritarian rule, absent state institutions, and wide spread poverty. In this context, prosecution (retributive justice) and a focus on violations of political and civic rights cannot be the only answer – though too often, they still are. Instead, transitional justice policies and measures need to incorporate – and prioritize – distributive and reparative justice needs as well as violations of economic, social and cultural rights. These often constitute root causes of violent conflict. To be sustainable, transitional justice measures need to be deeply intertwined with development and peacebuilding efforts. International actors should therefore not only treat transitional justice as a subject in itself, but also as a transversal theme. They need to identify linkages between different policy fields and apply “a dealing with the past”-lens to other processes including development programs such as land reform or education, security sector reform, the reintegration of former combatants, as well as rule of law and good governance programs.