Transitional justice's role in addressing Belgium’s colonial past
Belgium is the first country to establish a parliamentary commission dealing with its overseas colonial past in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. The commission was established in July 2020. This happened after the public outcry about George Floyd’s murder, the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, huge anti-racism protests, and a growing debate about Belgium’s colonial heritage, illustrated by the contestation over statues of King Leopold II, who was responsible for widespread atrocities committed under his rule.
The mission of this “special commission” is to shed a light on all aspects of Belgium’s colonial past. To this end, it appointed ten experts and four civil society representatives to write a report that was supposed to be released months ago, but which has not been made public to date. Civil society organisations have welcomed the commission as an opportunity to confront Belgium's colonial past and to address contemporary injustices. Yet, many of them are also critical about the process, and particularly about the limited consultation regarding how this process should be designed, the selection of the experts, and the overall lack of transparency.
Our interviewee in this episode, Dr. Liliane Umubyeyi, research coordinator at Avocats Sans Frontières, elaborates on the shortcomings of the commission:
"Theoretically, it's ambitious and it’s something that could be replicated in other countries. But at this point it's empty. So we have to see something concrete.”
While she is cautious about too technical or theoretical an approach, she confirms that the paradigm of transitional justice is potentially an apt one in the Belgian experience:
“A commission like this offers an opportunity that, for example, criminal trials wouldn't offer in terms of understanding the different lines of responsibility in historical injustices of going beyond individual responsibility in terms of bringing or finding proofs.”
In this episode, we put a spotlight on the Democratic Republic of Congo where a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) was established in 2003, in an attempt to bring an end to hostilities and pave the way to democratization. However, the TRC was short-lived, leaving victims of mass atrocities with fewer avenues for the right to truth. Recently, the government of President Felix Tshisekedi has shown willingness to support the installment of a new TRC and to set up a reparations fund for victims of mass atrocities. Marit de Haan and Christian Cirhigiri speak with Gentil Kasongo, researcher at Impunity Watch in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, who shares what this new momentum for truth-seeking means for the overall field of TJ in the DRC and for the participation of victims of mass atrocities.
Accountability and the Human Rights Council
Sri Lanka’s present is haunted by memories of the island’s decades-long civil war, which ended just over a decade ago. The war was mainly a clash between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgent group, the latter of which had hoped to establish a separate state for the Tamil minority. Although the Civil War ended in 2009, the current situation in Sri Lanka has only partially improved. A large portion of the Tamil population remains displaced. While there are fewer political and civil rights issues, instances of torture and enforced disappearances persist even in recent years. The Sri Lankan military still occupies predominantly Tamil areas designated as “high-security zones,” though to a lesser extent than during the war. The entrenched impunity for the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war in late 2008 and 2009 in what the United Nations called a “bloodbath”, remains unaccounted for.
In January this year, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a damning report on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The report tracks Sri Lanka’s current, deteriorating human rights situation, identifying developments that “risk the recurrence of… the grave violations of the past.” In March, the HRC adopted a new resolution on Sri Lanka, ramping up international monitoring and scrutiny of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and the new resolution also mandates the UN human rights office to collect, consolidate and preserve evidence for future prosecutions and make recommendations to the international community on steps they can make to deliver on justice and accountability.
In this episode, Tine Destrooper and Sangeetha Yogendran speak with Archana Ravichandradeva, a Canadian lawyer and Senior Advocacy Officer with PEARL, People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, a women-led NGO concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka. In her role at PEARL, she works to build connections with government officials to advocate for justice and accountability on the island. We discuss accountability and transitional justice efforts in Sri Lanka, and in light of developments before the Human Rights Council.
What the Charlie Hebdo trial could have learned from transitional justice
In 2015 terror attacks against Charlie Hebdo and in a Jewish supermarket paralyzed Paris. All three attackers were killed in standoffs with the police on 9 January 2015. Five years later, during an emotional three-month trial, victims were given a venue to share their testimonies as civil parties. The trial resulted in guilty verdicts against all 14 accused.
In this episode, we examine whether it makes sense to look at these trials through the lens of transitional justice and how doing so allows for lesson learning and for organizing the upcoming Bataclan and Nice trials in a more appropriate way.
Our interviewees in this episode, Kerstin Bree Carlson and Sharon Weill argue that one of the most remarkable things about this trial was that it worked like two processes running in parallel, barely connected, in what they argue was “a platform for the victims, but a weak criminal case”. During the “truth commission” element of the trial, victims recounted the horrors of the attacks. The criminal responsibility element of the trial, on the contrary, seemed to be much less linked to these events, with those on trial being markedly far removed from the facts recounted by the victims. This offers a warning for future terror trials, but also suggests that there may be things to learn from the domain of transitional justice where both criminal justice, truth-telling, and accountability also have to be navigated in complex settings.
How can experiences from the domain of transitional justice help consolidated democracies to better deal with terror attacks and other societal challenges they are facing? And what does it mean for the domain of transitional justice to include these aparadigmatic cases?
Dismantling peace and reparations
In July 2020, President Alejandro Giammattei issued a series of decrees closing down several institutions created to comply with the Peace Accords signed by the Guatemalan State in 1996. One of these decrees: a) closes the Peace Secretariat (SEPAZ), an institution tasked with managing the National Program of Reparations (PNR) for the victims of the armed conflict, and b) orders the transfer of the PNR to the Ministry of Social Development. Neither victims nor civil society organizations were included in the decision-making process that went behind these decrees. Several legal actions have been filed by victims and civil society to abrogate them.
In this episode, Tine Destrooper and Gretel Mejía talk to Rocío Herrera, a Guatemalan human rights lawyer working at the Human Rights Law Firm, a Guatemalan NGO that provides legal support in one of these actions. She addresses the implications of the decrees on victims’ access to an adequate, effective, and integral reparation, and on the realities of working with victim communities in pandemic times.
Rocío highlights the resilience of Guatemalan people and talks about other intersecting topics, such as the role of strategic litigation to overcome setbacks to transitional justice, and how actors, such as academic centres, can contribute to these interventions. One example are amicus curiae briefs, which explain human rights standards and obligations to the court.
From social protest to reforming rights: understanding Chile’s ongoing transition
On the 25th of October 2020, an overwhelming majority of Chilean citizens (78%) voted in favor of redrafting the constitution, following a year of protests. Many believe the constitution of 1980 is withholding Chile from fully leaving behind its past of military dictatorship. Some even call it ‘the constitution of Pinochet’. The referendum was organized in an attempt to meet the demands of protesters that took the streets in October 2019.
When Chile initiated its transition to democracy 30 years ago following 17 years of military dictatorship, the case soon became known as a ‘paradigmatic’ case of transitional justice. It is often cited as a successful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, because of its classical application of transitional justice mechanisms. However, the slogan ‘It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years’, which was often expressed by protesters reflects how the legacy of the dictatorship continues to affect the present. This context begs the question of whether this transition is actually as ‘finished’ as generally assumed, or rather ongoing.
In this episode, we talk to Loreto López, a social anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Program for the Social Psychology of Memory of the Universidad de Chile. We talk about what the process of constitutional reform will look like, and what this change of the constitution means within the broader transitional justice framework. Loreto argues that we should not only focus on the victims of human rights violations and start asking questions about the broader Chilean society. The reform of the constitution is just “going to be a start, the beginning”. What else is needed to adopt a broader culture of human rights in the Chilean context, and what could be the role of public memory in that complex process?
Loreto López is a social anthropologist at the Program for the Social Psychology of Memory of the Universidad de Chile. Her expertise is collective memory and Chile’s recent past of military dictatorship.
Marit de Haan is a PhD researcher at Justice Visions. She studies the perceptions and needs of justice of victims of the Chilean military dictatorship, focusing on victim participation and restorative justice.
Justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Syria
Since the start of the uprising in 2011, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) has been perpetrated by various parties to the Syrian conflict, mainly the Assad regime, rebel groups, and the Islamic State. Perpetrators resorted to this kind of violence to instill fear, weaken political opposition, punish and deter civilians, and further sectarianism. As the UN Commission of Inquiry emphasizes in its report ‘I lost my dignity’, the suffering induced by these practices impacts Syrians from all backgrounds. Women and girls, however, have been disproportionally affected and victimised, irrespective of the perpetrator or geographical area. And justice for survivors of SGBV is an uphill battle.
In this episode, we talk to Mona Zeineddin, of the Syrian NGO Women Now for Development, about the prosecution of SGBV. Mona leads the campaign ‘A Syrian Road to Justice’ that Women Now For Development launched together with four other feminist organizations, to support the first criminal complaint on SGBV that was filed in Germany. The complaint pertains to sexual and gender-based crimes committed in Syrian government-run detention centres. As their recent report ‘Surviving freedom’ demonstrates, the suffering of victims often continues upon release as they are exposed to discrimination and stigmatization. ‘There’s a lot of hesitance from witnesses or survivors to talk about these sorts of crimes’, elucidates Mona.
The relentless efforts of activists, NGOs, and international bodies have put SGBV higher on the agenda, raising awareness about the obstacles to justice and the need to address the physical, psychological and socio-economic harm that survivors have endured and continue to endure. Mona emphasizes that these joint efforts will eventually lead to transformation. ‘This is a structural issue and it’s not binary in the sense that men are not affected also by the patriarchy, by toxic masculinity, by militarism. It affects both genders, albeit differently, of course.’
What does the death of defendants in high-profile transitional justice cases mean for victims?
On 2 September 2020, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, a former senior figure of the Khmer Rouge convicted of war crimes against humanity in Cambodia, died. He was serving a life sentence after being found guilty of war crimes by the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2010. He was in charge of the S-21 Security Centre in Phnom Penh, where at least 12,000 people were tortured and killed, and only a handful survived.
In this episode, we talk to Samphoas Huy, a former Outreach Coordinator with the Victims Unit of the ECCC. She talks about what the passing of Duch means for Cambodia, especially in a situation where there are only a small number of defendants before the ECCC. She also explains what it means for the future of transitional justice in Cambodia if the remaining cases before the ECCC would not go to trial.
Memory and narratives play a crucial role in transitional justice. What do we remember of past violence, and how do we narrate those memories? In which ways can such narratives, in all their complexity, help us to better understand violence?
Literature is one place where we often find narratives of violence, but also in transitional justice narratives are everywhere: they lie at the basis of truth-seeking, and criminal justice trials might stand or fall depending on how victims narrate their memories.
In this podcast episode, we talk to Lyndsey Stonebridge, Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at Birmingham University. In her book ‘The Judicial imagination: writing after Nuremberg’ she touches upon issues such as what it means to tell a story, how we listen, and how to make sure that victims’ voices are adequately captured?
How to hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes accountable?
Bringing perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide to justice is a complex task, and it tends to be extremely difficult to find courts willing to prosecute perpetrators within the territories where crimes have been committed.
However, when domestic trials or referrals to an international court are not possible, universal jurisdiction offers a way to prosecute perpetrators of these crimes in other states.
Universal jurisdiction has thus made the unthinkable thinkable: allowing for the prosecution of internationally recognized crimes beyond the borders where they took place.
In this episode, we take as a starting point the cases currently taking place in Germany against former officials of the Syrian regime.
We talk to Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Thijs Bouwknegt about the meaning, impact, and challenges of trials taking place under universal jurisdiction.
What can the courts actually do in such complex cases and what is the role of international solidarity in this story? What is the impact of such international efforts on both victims' expectations and local justice efforts?
Naomi Roht-Arriaza is Professor of Law at The University of California Hastings College of the Law. She is the author of the impactful publication The Pinochet Effect: transitional justice in the age of human rights
Thijs Bouwknegt is a researcher at NIOD and Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). His expertise is transitional justice, the ICC and universal jurisdiction.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about human rights violations? Chances are that you are thinking about issues like torture, political detention, disappearance or extrajudicial killings – in other words, violations of civil and political rights. This set of rights continues to enjoy a privileged status in a lot of the human rights scholarship and practice.
Unsurprisingly, violations of these rights have also been the focus of most transitional justice interventions. In the past decade, however, we’ve witnessed more attention for violations of economic, social and cultural rights: when combatants poison a drinking well, burn crops or loot health infrastructure, these are acts that constitute violations of economic, social and cultural rights – and they can be prosecuted.
Moreover, violations of economic, social and cultural rights are often related to violations of civil and political rights, as well as to larger issues of social and economic injustice – but how exactly?
In recent years, a lot of excellent scholarship and practice started to provide answers to this question.
In this episode, we talk to three experts on this topic:
Evelyne Schmid from the University of Lausanne is a leading expert on social, economic and cultural rights and international criminal justice.
Simon Robins is a humanitarian practitioner and senior research fellow at the University of York working on social-economic justice.
Zinaida Miller is Assistant Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University
Together with them, we explore what room there is within the existing legal framework of transitional justice, as well as beyond it, to pay more attention to social and economic rights and needs. How can and should transitional justice engage with these issues? What are the pitfalls? And what if victims were the ones to shape the transitional justice agenda: would they prioritize truth and justice, or rather their social and economic needs? And is there really such a strong dichotomy?
When talking about victim participation in transitional justice processes, we need to better understand the notions of victim, victimhood, and victimization, as well as the related phenomena of retraumatization and tertiary victimization. In this episode, we talk to scholars, practitioners, and artists to arrive at a more responsive and empowering understanding.
From the previous episode, it became clear how strongly the field of transitional justice is interwoven with that of international criminal justice. What does that mean for the evolution of the field of transitional justice and where it is going, especially with regard to the role played by victims in this process? In this episode we talk to Laurel Fletcher, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law, to better understand where we come from and where we are headed, and what the most important evolutions are to expect in the next decade.
Victim participation is receiving increasing attention in transitional justice. In the pilot episode, it became clear that there is potentially tremendous value in victim participation, but that there are also many pitfalls. Before we dive into the murkiest questions facing us in practice, we take a step back and ask two of the legal experts affiliated to Justice Visions, Stephan Parmentier and Rudina Jasini, what is even possible – legally speaking – in terms of victim participation: what formal restrictions are there, and how do these affect the avenues and modalities of victim participation and the justice process itself. We also reflect with them on some of the experiences of practitioners, like Sangeetha Yogendran, in this regard.
Welcome to the pilot episode of Justice Visions Talks, your go-to for everything that is new and innovative in the domain of transitional justice. In this short introductory episode, we want to briefly tell you more about what you can expect from us, how this podcast came about and why you should listen to it.