Voices from the Ground: Learning about Transitional Justice on the Ground

31 May 2022

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) to interact with practitioners and activists who contribute to transitional justice (TJ) everyday making.

In this new extracurricular activity, guest speakers involved in TJ processes at the local level share with students their experiences in setting up, running, working, or resisting various TJ mechanisms and processes.

‘This activity brought local actors involved in the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms and practices to engage with the question: What is transitional justice from your experiences? By bringing first-hand, bottom-up perspectives from countries across different regions, these sessions allowed students to expand their understanding of transitional justice gained in the regular courses. They had the opportunity to discuss with actors on the ground the opportunities and limitations of the international model of transitional justice. They also reflected on challenges faced in the implementation of transitional justice in different countries. The speakers shared their contacts with the students to continue the exchange beyond the sessions’ explains Agustina Becerra Vazquez, Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy and in charge of this series.

‘The TJ Voices from the Ground series was a great opportunity to see the many different forms transitional justice takes in a variety of contexts. It was the perfect complement to our academic courses and gave us the opportunity to discuss challenges faced by TJ practitioners from across the globe’ says Ellen Murphy, currently enrolled in our MTJ.

Four Sessions Led by TJ Practitioners

The series consists of four online sessions led by guest speakers who have been directly involved in TJ processes in their respective countries.

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 the 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.

‘Transitional justice mechanisms are paralyzed when based on flawed legislation. The politicization of transitional justice mechanisms derails the process of justice, fostering revictimization and entrenching impunity’ she says.

‘This discussion with Salina was a great way to open this series on Voices from the Ground. It offered us exposure to a transitional justice context that we hadn’t seen before in our courses which reaffirmed the variety of contexts in which transitional justice takes place, as well as the limitations of adopting a ‘one size, fits all approach’ to diverse situations’ underlines Ellen Murphy, currently enrolled in our MTJ.

Transitional Justice from 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 the rural community to participate in the national decision-making process 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.

‘TJ should not be a one-fits-all formula but should be about an inclusive and locally-driven process in which the role of international experts is to listen and support local efforts. I encourage you as students to reflect on ways to evaluate past experiences more rigorously to avoid repeating the same mistakes from context to context’ says John.

‘It was fascinating to learn about Fambul Tok, particularly coming from a system where justice and punishment seem to go hand in hand. The capacity for both remorse and forgiveness shown by the people who took part in this initiative was incredible and challenged my notions of what justice and reconciliation can look like. It was also great to speak with John as he himself had been involved in all phases of the transition in Sierra Leone as a human rights activist and took the initiative to establish Fambul Tok when he saw that the measures in place did not necessarily have the reach or impact originally envisioned’ explains Ellen.

Transitional Justice from Brazil by Jose Carlos Moreira da Silva Filho

Jose Carlos Moreira da Silva Filho is the former vice-president of the Amnesty Commission of the Brazilian Ministry of Justice that addressed human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.

He is a Professor of Law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, a Researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, as well a Guest Professor at the Master in Human Rights, Interculturality and Development of the Pablo de Olavide University and at the Master in Criminology, Criminal Policy and Criminal Law Sociology of the University of Barcelona.

Jose Carlos shared with our students his insights into the Brazilian transitional justice process regarding the last dictatorship and the important role of civil society in pushing forward it. He discussed specific aspects such as reparations and corporate accountability.

‘The process of transitional justice in Brazil began during the dictatorship and had as a major milestone the amnesty campaigns promoted in the 1970s, driven by various sectors of civil society. The Brazilian case is full of decisive and emblematic moments in which the ‘voices from the ground’ were decisive in carrying forward the struggles for truth, memory, justice, and reparation, which, in many cases, were in close harmony with several important institutional initiatives, especially those related to the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances, the Amnesty Commission, and the National Truth Commission’ says Jose Carlos.

‘His presentation also emphasized the importance of civil society mobilization and their ability to create political pressure which eventually led to the establishment of the three main transitional commissions in Brazil. In countries that may lack the political will to carry through reforms, it is nevertheless essential to acknowledge the impressive work of civil society organizations and their contribution to transitional justice’ explains Ellen.

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.

‘Restorative justice in post-conflict societies is a fundamental contribution to the policies of memory and transitional justice, as no one can delegitimise violence more than the perpetrator. On the other hand, the generosity of the victims of terrorism and serious crimes challenges us as a community towards reconciliation’ says Roberto Moreno.

‘It was fantastic to have an entire session dedicated to the topic of restorative justice which we did not get the chance to study in depth in our classes. Similarly to Fambul Tok, it was an approach to justice that moved away from the “traditional” notions of crime and punishment, and put a greater emphasis on addressing harms at multiple levels of society and moving towards healing and reconciliation’ explains Ellen.

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