The Importance of Transitional Justice

justice africaWhether for welcoming a newborn or mourning the loss of a relative, every society has and dearly holds onto its own forms of traditions. But in times of emergency such as civil war and genocide, those atrocities not only disrupt current community life but also affect future generations, with such death and destructions, no country is prepared to face the crises aftermath, let alone having a “Recovery toolkit” or a “Reset button”. Therefore, countries look for new ways to mourn their dead, commemorate the events, preserve the memory and move forward.

Since independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, most Africa governments have been undemocratic, repressive and authoritarian. This has often been marked by serious violation of human rights. These attempts to move away from dark eras of dictatorship with the advent of the so-called “Third wave” of democratization in the 1990s has been accomplished by numerous challenges, one of which is how to deal with the trauma and wounds of the past by ensuring that human rights violations are accounted for in a manner that respects and protects the dignity of survivors and their relatives without threatening future peace and security. The movement from repressive to democratic systems of governance is a worldwide phenomenon and therefore, the transition in Africa has learnt from the inspiring experience of other transitions in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. The transitional challenges have usually been enormous. The question is HOW DO YOUTHS DEAL WITH PEOPLE WHO RULED ON A DAILY BASIS BY VIOLENCE, TERROR, INTIMIDATION AND DIVISION? HOW DO YOUTHS BRING BACK TRUST, ECONOMIC PROSPERITY, POLICAL STABILITY AND CONGENIAL SOCIAL RELATION?

This article starts by looking at the whole issue of transitional justice: what it means, what it entails and its dilemmas. It then reviews some different types of truth commissions that have been established in Africa at one stage or another. Although the experience of each country is unique and its political and historical context different, there are many unifying themes common to them, so important lessons can be drawn from each experience. It is clear that the search for an equilibrium that achieves justice whilst ensuring social stability and reconciliation will remain a major challenge.

Transitional justice consists of judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses. Such measures include criminal prosecution, truth commissions, reparation programs and various kinds of institutional reforms. Transitional justice is enacted at a point of political transition from violence and repression to societal stability and it is informed by a society’s desire to rebuild social trust, repair fractured justice system, and build a democratic system of governance. The primary objective of transition justice policy is to end the culture of impunity and establish the rule of law in a context of democratic governance.

The concept of transition justice can be traced back to the Second World War period in Europe with the establishment of the National Military Tribunal at Nuremburg and the various de-Nazification programs in Germany and the trails of Japanese soldiers for crimes committed during the war. Today, transitional justice usually refers to the range of approaches that societies undertake to reckon with the legacies of widespread or systematic human rights abuses as they move from period of violence- conflict or repression towards peace, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The legal and human rights protection roots of transitional justice impute certain legal obligation on states undergoing transition. It challenges such societies to strive for a society where respect for human rights is the core and accountability is routinely practiced as the main goals. In the context of these goals, transitional justice aims at:

  • Halting ongoing human rights abuses,
  • Investigating past crimes,
  • Identifying those responsible for human rights violations;
  • Imposing sanctions on those responsible (where it can);
  • Preventing future abuses and death;
  • Providing reparations to victims;
  • Security sector reforms;
  • Preserving and enhancing peace;
  • And fostering individual and nation reconciliation.
© Jens Kieselbach

Photo: Jens Kieselbach

Taking an overview of some African truth commission, only 18 of Africa’s 54 countries have established a truth commission in one form or another to help it chart the way forward. For example, let’s take a look at Nigeria: a proposal by the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to establish a reconciliation commission to investigate the causes, natures and extent of the gross violations of human rights that took place from 2000 to May 2014 never materialized. At the end of 2007, the Rivers State governor Rotimi Amechi announced that a truth commission local to the state will be established and charged with the responsibility for unearthing the remote and immediate causes of cult clashes in the state and identifying perpetrators and victims with a view to prosecutions and compensation. Besides these plans, in 1999 shortly after Obasanjo became president, he created the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, popularly known as the OPUTA panel, to investigate all human rights violations that had occurred between 1996 and 28th May 1999. Public hearings were held in Abuja, Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt between 2000 and 2001, when the panel was in operation. Although the panel concluded and submitted its report obtaining numerous findings and recommendations to President Obasanjo in May 2002, this report was never officially released until a coalition of pressure groups published it in January 2005. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the whole process has been compromised by the fact that most of the recommendations of the commission were not implemented.

In my own view, although transitional justice is engulfed by many critical challenges in addition to the difficulty of measuring its impacts, given the number of other factors in any country’s experience overtime, human rights trials or truth commissions need not to have a negative effect on human rights practices. This makes transitional justice viable, especially in times of state building and democracy promotion in post-conflict societies.

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Ireh Kingsley

My name is Ireh Kingsley Chike from Agwu Local Government Area, Enugu State, Nigeria. I am the third born of my parent, fair in completion, currently based in Anambra State were I do some of my studies and articles for my organzation.

One thought on “The Importance of Transitional Justice

  1. I am Caseybret, a student in Kenyan University taking criminology and am sure your article is very good and encouraging. Thanks alot.

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