New Master in Transitional Justice: Interview with Frank Haldemann and Thomas Unger

Frank Haldemann and Thomas Unger in front of the Geneva Academy's headquarters. Frank Haldemann and Thomas Unger in front of the Geneva Academy's headquarters.

How did this new Master come about?

Thomas Unger: There is a lot of transitional justice work in Geneva. Many international organizations based here work on transitional justice, like the Human Rights Council, the main UN body dealing with human rights. But there was no real academic programme dealing with this issue in Geneva to complement the ongoing work in the policy field of transitional justice. Through my work as Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice, a mandate that has been established by the UN Human Rights Council, I could see that there is a lot of demand in the area of transitional justice education. So it made a lot of sense to establish a new Master in transitional justice here in Geneva.

Frank Haldemann: Transitional justice is now a well-established field of academic research and practical policy-making. Recent years have seen a rapidly growing interdisciplinary literature on the topic, with two peer-reviewed journals and one three-volume encyclopaedia specifically dedicated to the subject. Transitional justice is now widely taught in Universities around the world and academic networks dealing with transitional justice have mushroomed. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, there are only a few master programmes in Europe focussing on transitional justice and related issues. So we wanted to fill the gap by creating such a programme here in Geneva, the capital of international law and human rights.

Why do you think it’s important to study transitional justice?

Thomas Unger: It’s a fast growing field of policy-making and academic work, which creates a lot of new opportunities. Many governments, international organizations and NGOs are focussing on transitional justice and are working on this issue on the ground. This creates a demand for transitional justice expertise and for transitional justice practitioners. Our Master can contribute to this and help young professionals to work in this area.

Frank Haldemann: There is indeed a practical demand. Transitional justice has been placed on the UN agenda, as evidenced by the recent creation of a Special Rapporteur mandate on this issue. But more than that, it is also now a reality on the ground, with NGOs and political institutions being created to work on transitional justice like for instance in Tunisia, where a Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice was established following the events commonly labelled as the ’Arab Spring’. Academically speaking, it’s an incredibly interesting and rapidly evolving field that is rooted in international human rights law but tends to become more and more interdisciplinary.

Thomas Unger: There is also a fascinating question at the heart of transitional justice: how a society deals with mass atrocities? And this is not something that only affects countries from the South. This is also an issue here in Europe or in Western societies, like for example in Germany, Austria, Spain or Northern Ireland. And that makes it interesting for everybody: it is not an academic discussion in an ivory tower.

In which sectors do you think your students will be working after the Master?

Thomas Unger: From my own background – I’ve been working in government, civil society and the UN – I could see over the years that there was a growing demand for transitional justice experts. The European Union, the African Union and a lot of governments are currently putting in place transitional justice policies, generating transitional justice work. The field needs people who have a solid education in transitional justice. As not many universities are offering such course, I think that our students would find quite unique opportunities. We will also offer some coaching to our students, in the form of advice as to where to apply, where to send their applications to, as well as connections with organizations working on transitional justice issues.

Frank Haldemann: Far from an ivory tower exercise, our programme links academic insights with practical work. Throughout the year, students will be participating in professionalizing activities through internships linked with clinical work. We also want this programme to be a platform for critical, ‘out of the box’ thinking. Transitional justice is certainly more than a mere ’tool box’ exercise reducible to technical rules and managerial schemes, and we want our students to think broadly about such issues as gender, ethics, memory, social justice, constitutional making, human rights and criminal justice.

Thomas Unger: Geneva is also the right place to be: there are hundreds of organizations working in this area which makes it easier to connect our students with these actors and experts working for these organizations. The location of the Master in Geneva is really a plus.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges today in the field of transitional justice?

Thomas Unger: From a practical perspective, challenges are really part of transitional justice. This field was created to try to address major challenges which exist in post-conflict situations or after an authoritarian rule, where there is a huge demand for justice, reparation and institutional reforms. Transitional justice is trying to find some form of solution, some form of way forward for societies in the face of these massive challenges. So transitional justice is full of tensions and challenges, but that makes the field so interesting and relevant for both practice and academic work.

Frank Haldemann: Throughout the last decade, we’ve seen an interesting scholarly debate on many aspects – including questions of whether transitional justice should deal directly with social justice and development concerns, what role an institution such as the International Criminal Court can play in promoting in transitional justice, whether more attention should be paid to local mechanisms in the sense of ’justice from below’, whether transitional justice ‘works’ etc. There is still much academic work to be done on each of these and other topics.

Both of you are experts in transitional justice: what brought you to this field?

Frank Haldemann: When I was studying at university, I started doing research about topics related to transitional justice before the field came to be called ‘transitional justice’. I was interested in philosophical debates sparked by thinkers such as Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno and Primo Levi: how do you deal with the past in the face of mass atrocities like Auschwitz? Then I had the chance to be part of the so-called Bergier Commission, a sort of a ‘truth commission’ which dealt with Switzerland’s past during the Second World War. Having direct access to archives, seeing letters written by victims, was a very deep experience for me. After that, I started working on different transitional justice projects, studying for instance the question of recognition and its value for victims. Then I became involved as a Swiss National Science Professor in a project dealing with transitional justice and reparations and had the chance to start teaching transitional justice at the Geneva Academy!

Thomas Unger: I started by being interested in international criminal justice. It was the end of the 90s, the establishment of the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former-Yugoslavia (ICTY). I was studying law and was extremely fascinated by this new field which deals with serious crimes such as crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. I therefore started working for the ICTY and the Office of the Prosecutor. My work at the tribunal just showed me the limits of the law, because the approach in the 90s was very much focussed on the criminal response to mass atrocities. I soon found there has to be more, because these crimes have a huge impact on the whole society, they have the force to destroy the whole social fabric of a society. They leave huge scares not only on the individual victim but on the whole society.

I continued studying this field at New York University (NYU) and then started working with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) - an NGO working in this area- on different projects in various countries, including Uganda, Argentina, Nepal and the former Yugoslavia, developing programmes on how to deal with the past. This brought me deeper into this subject and I continued working on this as a diplomat working with the Austrian Foreign Ministry. That led me to my work with the UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice: I’ve been an advisor for this mandate during three years and had the opportunity to visit several countries, giving advice to governments and other actors on how to move on, what kind of mechanism to put in place or how to strengthen civil society in this area.

Now I moved to the academic field: I’m very enthusiastic in sharing my knowledge and my practical experience with students and young professionals, and to build this academic programme.