Students Learn about Transitional Justice Processes on the Ground

23 June 2023

The ‘Voices from the Ground’ series provides a platform for students of our MAS in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law (MTJ) and LLM in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights to interact with practitioners and activists who contribute to transitional justice (TJ) everyday making.

In this flagship extracurricular activity, judges, human rights defenders, activists, and government representatives involved in TJ processes at the local level shared their experiences in setting up, running, working, or resisting various TJ mechanisms.

‘This series allows students to learn about concrete transitional justice processes and the many challenges related to these. In doing so, they not only expand their understanding of how TJ is implemented and the roles of various actors but also put in perspective the concepts they have learned in class – thus preparing them for embracing a career in the TJ field’ explains our Teaching Assistant Agustina Becerra Vazquez who coordinates this activity.

From Nepal to Colombia: Five Distinct TJ Experiences

Through five sessions, students addressed concrete TJ issues with guest speakers who have been directly involved in TJ processes in their respective countries.

Transitional Justice Sierra Leone by John Caulker

John Caulker is the Founder and Executive Director of Fambul Tok International in Sierra Leone, an NGO that works with post-conflict countries to create space for community-led reconciliation and development that leads to peace.

John became a human rights activist as a student leader during the initial years of the conflict in Sierra Leone. Risking his life to document wartime atrocities, he infiltrated rebel camps disguised as a rebel to gather information and stories that he would then pass along to NGOs like Amnesty International, Article 19, and Human Rights Watch. He then founded the human rights NGO Forum of Conscience in 1996 and strove, as its Executive Director, to prevent recurring violence by connecting the root causes of Sierra Leone’s conflict to the need for rural community to participate in national decision-making processes and by acknowledging wrongdoing to victims through reparation programmes.

John shared with students his experience regarding the operation of various TJ mechanisms in Sierra Leone in which he was involved as a civil society actor. He reflected on the opportunities and challenges of TJ mechanisms such as the Truth Commission and the Special Tribunal but also of community-based processes such as Fambul Tok.

‘This series offered us a unique chance to interact with and learn directly from experts who have been integral to TJ processes in their respective countries. In Sierra Leone, the discussions centred on how the government could effectively implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations and we also explored the pivotal role of civil society in advocating for government inclusivity and bottom-up approaches’ explains MTJ student Wahida Omari.

Transitional Justice from Nepal by Salina Kafle

Salina Kafle is a human rights lawyer based in Nepal. She is the Executive Director of the Human Rights and Justice Centre (HRJC), a non-profit organization that fights against torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and conflict-related sexual violence.

During her work, Salina has closely observed the Nepalese transitional justice process, designed legal strategies and advocated related issues at the national and international levels. She has also worked as a consultant for various national and regional NGOs. She has written extensively in national Journals on the issues of gross human rights violations. Salina shared with students her views on and lessons learned from the TJ process in Nepal and the remaining challenges.

‘TJ has a political component but it would be a wrong perception to say that political leaders or political highhandedness alone decide the process of TJ. Political leadership has a role to play in developing laws and policies within the parameters of the rule of law and international principles of TJ’ explains Salina.

‘In the context of Nepal, we discussed confronted the harsh realities of enforced disappearances and conflict-related sexual violence and the ongoing challenges faced by the TJ process in addressing these issues, which have yet to be adequately tackled to this day.’ underlines MTJ student Wahida Omari.

Transitional Justice from the Basque Country by Roberto Moreno Alvarez

Roberto Moreno is in charge of questions related to justice, prisoners and victims of terrorism at the Office of the Ombudsman for the Basque Country and was involved in the 2011–2012 restorative encounters between former members of the terrorist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and victims.

Roberto shared with students his participation in the 2011–2012 restorative encounters and talked about his personal experience of supporting, as an expert, the team of facilitators.

‘We wish that it would be possible for everyone to heal the perennial wounds of the violent past, to caress wounded hearts with the mild strength of sitting close together, of looking into each other's eyes and speaking to each other with truth and respect’ says Roberto.

‘The Basque experience shed light on the practical implementation of restorative justice within a transitional context, emphasizing the crucial role it plays’ recalls MTJ student Wahida Omari.

Transitional Justice from Liberia by Aaron Weah

Aaron Weah is a Liberian TJ activist and researcher at the University of Ulster, who has accompanied and worked on Liberia’s TJ process for more than fifteen years.

As a Programme Associate at the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), he provided technical assistance to the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and worked with grassroots communities to find solutions to the questions of post-conflict memorialization. As a Policy Analyst at the Liberia Governance Commission, he collaborated with the relevant ministries, agencies and commissions to draft the Strategic Road Map for Peacebuilding, Reconciliation and National Healing – an outgrowth of the TRC Final Report and a post-TRC instrument dedicated to implementing restorative justice measures.

Aaron shared with the students his perspective on the Liberian transitional justice processes, including the role of the TRC and Palava Hut – a community-based justice mechanisms suggested by the TRC in its final report – and lessons learned from this process.

‘Is there ever a right time to establish a truth commission? There is no straightforward answer to this question as some countries have done so immediately after peace agreements or a few years later and the results have ranged from good to bad. Liberia's experiment with transitional justice in the form of a truth commission teaches a particular lesson. The Commission was established immediately after the peace agreement when the majority of the society was still dislocated, and a significant part of the human resources was exiled. The TRCs – put together under such expedient circumstances – overlooked the negotiations and compromises that require achieving minimalist results between victims and perpetrators. The lack of political will to ‘genuinely’ implement some of the Commission’s critical recommendations is a testament to this arrangement’ explains Aaron.

Transitional Justice from Colombia by Catalina Díaz Gomez

Catalina Díaz is a judge at Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace and its Acknowledgment Chamber. In this position, she instructs cases on murders and enforced disappearances carried out by state agents, the victimization of Unión Patriótica members, and committed by the public forces and state agents in association with paramilitary groups or civilian third parties in the armed conflict.

Catalina exchanged with students about the strategies used by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace to fulfil the difficult task of providing a justice avenue in a situation of long-standing, massive and systematic violence, as well as of implementing the restorative justice paradigm.

‘The five sessions provided great insight into TJ practices and how they have been shaped to best fit their context’s needs. Discussions of practices in the Basque region and Colombia demonstrated the significance and benefit of restorative justice practices, specifically through the opening and supporting of dialogue between victims and perpetrators at both the grassroots and judicial levels. In Liberia, this was also exemplified through the Palava Hut System, which showed how TJ processes can be adapted to specific regions and cultures to ensure the best outcome for the people and their country. The sessions were incredibly engaging and left us hoping to connect with the speakers after to discuss such topics further’ underlines MTJ student Cate Borrelli.

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