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22 April, 2011 - 14:58

ICTJ: One decade of justice

Transitional Justice  data/files/transitional_justice.jpg

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Created in 2001, the ICTJ works to redress and prevent the most severe violations of human rights by confronting legacies of mass abuse.

Following an international conference organised by the ICTJ in Tunis earlier this month, David Tolbert, ICTJ President, explains the work of the organisation and its focus for the future.
Interview by Geraldine Coughlan in The Hague.
What was the outcome of the Tunisia Conference?
We were able to bring together civil society and government actors to discuss transitional justice, as well as experts with comparative experience on transitional justice. The conference dealt with misunderstandings about transitional justice mechanisms. This gave the participants a good platform to address accountability, non-repetition and security sector reform, which will be important elements of the transition in Tunisia, as well as reparations, victims’ rights, and truth. It also had a broader regional dimension because there were representatives of Egypt and other parts of the region as well attending the conference.
How has the ICTJ changed since it started?
We really began with transitional justice as not just an academic concept. There has obviously been a lot of practice in South America and also in South Africa – but we have helped take those experiences, put meat on the bones, and develop this into a worldwide transitional justice organization. Transitional justice is now very much a part of the architecture of peace building and conflict prevention. The role of the ICTJ is to support the Rome Statute system and the ICC. But our work is now much more focused on making complementarity work on the ground. That is the challenge.
What is today’s biggest challenge in international justice?
The biggest challenge is getting the complementarity principle working on the ground. We have the primary obligation of the state to fulfill: domestic investigations, prosecutions and other transitional justice mechanisms, which address the state’s responsibility to hold to account those most responsible for serious crimes.
Domestic accountability in countries where the judicial system has either failed or is under stress is going to be very difficult.
For the future, there are a number of challenges. The immediate challenges are in the Middle East and North Africa. Complementarity is going to be a critically important issue for accountability and the fight against impunity. At the national level, the challenge will be making the complementarity principle work.
How do you draw the two elements of truth-seeking and justice together? For instance could the ICC and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions work together?
Truth-seeking and justice work in a complementary fashion, hand-in-hand. But they provide different things and their approaches are different.
Criminal justice is obviously essential for accountability for those that are most responsible for the most serious crimes. But a court case only tells part of the story of a conflict or of an authoritarian regime. Truth-telling processes, like truth commissions, tell a much broader story and let victims tell their stories in a much broader way.
Truth commissions frequently make recommendations on prosecutions and act on reparation programmes. They work together, they are complementary, and not antagonists in any sense.
All the transitional justice mechanisms are working together. A society that is facing the past needs accountability, it needs criminal justice. It is also essential to have the truth. It’s important that the sufferings and the victims are recognized in a tangible way through reparation programs, and to take steps to ensure that those who have committed the abuse, particularly in the security sector, are reformed.
At the end of the day, the ICC is going to investigate and prosecute a relative handful of perpetrators. It’s up to national authorities to really make the Rome Statute system work and therefore make international justice work.

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