Seven African countries face the challenge of transitional justice

3 October 2013

Bujumbura, Burundi – For all countries emerging from armed conflict or liberated from an authoritarian regime, transitional justice is crucial to achieving reconciliation among former “enemies”. In concrete terms, this means the establishment of responsibility for abuses committed, punishment of the guilty parties, and acknowledgement for the victims. The system of transitional justice must be tailored to each specific context, which makes it important for experiences in this area to be freely exchanged. For that reason, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) recently gathered lawyers and experts from seven African countries in Bujumbura to discuss this indispensable step on the path to lasting peace.

Transitional justice consists of a variety of mechanisms and measures, such as prosecution of those accused of crimes, compensation of victims, and enquiries aimed at establishing the truth. In some cases, such as South Africa following the apartheid era, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are set up. “The establishment of transitional justice mechanisms is often difficult, because after a major conflict, many institutions have been destroyed or seriously destabilized,” according to Luc Meissner, International Criminal Justice Project Coordinator at ASF.

Atelier Buja

Regional workshop organised by ASF in Bujumbura © Luc Meissner/ASF

The fact that there is no single model for transitional justice presents an additional challenge. Due to variations in cultures and legal traditions, each context is unique, as is the nature of each conflict. “The sharing of good practices can therefore be a source of inspiration for others who are confronted with these issues,” adds Luc Meissner. To that end, 40 lawyers and experts on the transitional justice processes in seven African countries – Burundi, DR Congo, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Uganda, Chad and Tunisia – were brought together by ASF in Bujumbura on 11-12 September 2013.

These nations share recent histories of conflict and democratic transition, as well as the willingness to improve their respective systems of transitional justice. Ivory Coast, for example, transferred its former president Laurent Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague due to his role in the conflict, but the government still needs to legitimise its Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the eyes of the people. In Uganda, where the warlord Joseph Kony is being sought by the ICC, transitional justice is taking the form of a reform of the judicial system and the establishment of a special court for international crimes. In Burundi, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Tribunal for handling past crimes, in the works since 2000, have just been established.

The regional workshop organised by ASF enabled the lawyers and experts from civil society to share their experiences, especially in the area of protection of witnesses who participate in trials. “This type of exchange of information on systems and practices in other countries is quite rare. We at ASF are playing a linking role,” says Luc Meissner. “Going forward, we plan to organise regular exchanges among these experts and encourage advocacy initiatives aimed at their respective governments as well as at the regional level, especially the African Union.”

These activities are taking place as part of the project to promote the Rome Statute and the effectiveness of the ICC, funded by the European Union and the MacArthur Foundation. During the regional workshop, ASF formally presented its recent report: Transitional justice. Capitalisation study on ASF’s legal assistance programmes in Burundi (1999-2004).

Cover photo: For several years, ASF led a project of observation and analysis of the Gacaca, a popular justice system established in Rwanda to prosecute the crimes committed during the genocide. © Thomas Lohnes/AFP

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