By Noha Aboueldahab

08 May 2019 - 17:01

Blue and white building in Tunis seen through an archway
'Transitional justice experts play an important role in carefully examining realistic options to pursue justice in fragmented, highly polarised, and often violent contexts.' Photo ©

Haythem Gataa used under licence and adapted from the original

Noha Aboueldahab is a specialist in transitional justice, author, and fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. 

When has a nation or people used transitional justice to move from one era to the next?

Countries in almost every region of the world have undergone a form of transition that was followed by the pursuit of transitional justice as a way to reckon with a painful past.

Argentina is a well-known example. The country transitioned from a military dictatorship in the 1970s to a civilian democracy in 1983. Over the ensuing decades, Argentina pursued criminal trials to hold perpetrators accountable, established a truth commission, and issued amnesties.

In November 2017, one of the highest-profile human rights trials in Argentina saw the sentencing of 29 former military officials to life in prison. They were convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering regime opponents during the so-called Dirty War of 1978-1983.

This trial, which lasted five years, shed light on the practice known as ‘death flights', in which regime opponents were captured, tortured, drugged, loaded onto aircraft and then pushed to their death into the ocean. Thousands of Argentinians were also forcibly disappeared during the military dictatorship.

For more than 40 years now, members of the group Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, which consists of the relatives of those who disappeared, continue to protest every week to demand the truth about the fate of their loved ones.

Tunisia is a recent example of an Arab country that has pursued transitional justice while undergoing a political transition. Several weeks of mass protests in 2010 and 2011, during which Tunisians demanded social justice and freedom from authoritarian rule, resulted in the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali had served in high-level positions in the government for decades, 23 years of them as Tunisia’s president.

He, along with several other high-level government officials, were tried and given prison sentences for corruption and for the murder of peaceful protesters. However, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia before he could be arrested, and has been living in Riyadh in exile since.

But Tunisia has made a major achievement in reckoning with its past. It has done so notably through its Truth and Dignity Commission. The Truth and Dignity Commission recently published its final report detailing the violations and crimes Tunisians suffered under authoritarian rule since 1955.

The Truth and Dignity Commission received more than 62,000 complaints from Tunisians for grievances and crimes. Some of the victims’ testimonies were televised, which created a difficult but important public debate about Tunisia’s painful past.

Can you give us a current example of a place or people who are in transition?

Currently, Sudan and Algeria are undergoing historic transitions, following mass protests that ousted their long-standing leaders, Omar Al Bashir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Protesters in both countries continue to demand a transition to civilian rule, while trying to ensure that regime loyalists do not hijack the transitions for their own interests.

There have been arrests, and government officials and protesters have stated the need for ‘accountability’ for past crimes in both countries. That signifies the society’s immediate desire for justice for decades of oppression.

What role does a transitional justice specialist have during transitions like the ones you described?

Transitional justice specialists must closely examine the context within which they are working:

  • What are the conditions of the state’s institutions, and in particular its judiciary?
  • What kinds of crimes were committed?
  • What do the victims want to see happen?
  • Were the crimes mostly structural (having to do with socio-economic marginalisation)?
  • What is the best way to deal with such crimes?
  • Would reparations address most of the victims’ concerns?
  • If the victims want to see criminal justice, but their domestic institutions are too weak or politicised, would an international tribunal make more sense?

The role of a transitional justice specialist is a sensitive one. It is important to take context into account, rather than dismiss the contextual specificities for an obscure and overly internationalised transitional justice agenda.

A transitional justice specialist should help ensure that victims’ needs – which are often overlooked – figure heavily in the development of transitional justice policies. Our role is not to pursue aspirations that unnecessarily heighten victims’ expectations. Transitional justice experts play an important role in carefully examining realistic options to pursue justice in fragmented, highly polarised, and often violent contexts.

Why did you become a specialist in transitional justice?

The lack of accountability for the powerful always made me angry. Why do innocent people have to suffer oppression and violence at the hands of authoritarian regimes, while those who inflict such suffering escape meaningful accountability?

The United Nations sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s were a defining moment for me while growing up. They resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent children because they didn’t have access to food and medicine. I was deeply troubled that such death and destruction can be wrought by an organisation that purports to uphold values of freedom and justice.

I began to think about why leaders in powerful Western countries are seldom held accountable for their complicity in such death and destruction – whether through their own foreign policies, or through their powerful influence in international organisations such as the United Nations.

Through transitional justice, victims can make their demands known by holding a place at the transitional justice negotiating table. It's an opportunity to reckon with a painful past, deal with the present, and help prevent some of the atrocities from recurring.

I was mostly drawn to transitional justice as a governance field. Countries in conflict, those recently emerging from conflict, and those that continue to suffer under authoritarian rule could use transitional justice as a form of resistance to past and current oppression, and as a mechanism that is integral to rebuilding societies.

What educational route did you take to become a transitional justice specialist?

I studied international relations and peace and conflict studies as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and at Sciences Po Paris. There, I studied the development of international criminal law through the establishment of international criminal tribunals in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court.

Then, I decided to specialise in international criminal law during my master's programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Everything I had learned about human rights and international law was turned upside down, mainly through the critical mentoring of my professors.

I developed my knowledge of international criminal law at two intensive courses taught at the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, where my team won first place in a moot court competition.

Finally, while the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011 were raging, I decided to pursue my PhD at Durham Law School on the prosecution of political leaders in the Arab region. I published my first book on transitional justice in the Arab region in 2017 with Hart.

What other skills and experience do you draw on in your work?

Transitional justice is a multidisciplinary field. I draw on international politics, anthropology, critical legal studies, and international law.

I speak at forums about transitional justice, where I explain the daily impact of transitional justice issues, and their role in rebuilding societies emerging from decades of oppression and conflict.

My work on transitional justice is mostly empirical. I interview and draw on the experiences and insight of activists, lawyers, judges, diplomats, prosecutors, journalists, and civil society leaders in countries throughout the Arab region, including Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.

I've worked at non-governmental organisations, United Nations agencies, and at academic and policy institutions. So, I consider transitional justice from a number of angles, all with a view to informing practitioners about transitional justice in the Arab region.

What is an average working day like for you?

No two days are the same! But my working days involve a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of questioning.

I often question the so-called international community's actions against its words, particularly regarding conflicts and injustices in the global south. But I also pay a lot of attention to how individuals and organisations from the global south use the international justice framework to seek justice in innovative ways.

This includes the work of the incredible Syrian documentation movement, which operates within Syria and in several countries around the world, as well as the hard work of Yemeni professional diaspora members in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

I also regularly meet with international policymakers, diplomats, politicians, and scholars, to share my findings based on such research.

My colleagues and I design and run closed round-tables – discussions where each person can freely and anonymously participate in a set debate. Our topics range from the war in Yemen to Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East. We hold public panel events where a diverse audience exchanges views with the speakers.

I present my papers at conferences around the world, and I speak about transitional justice in the Arab region at forums.

When there is a breaking news story that is getting a lot of media coverage, I often contribute my analysis when contacted by international media outlets.

My non-working day involves school and nursery pick-ups and drop-offs, homework guidance, playtime, and intriguing conversations with my six-, five-, and two-year-old.

Is there anything about your work that you did not expect when you began your career?

Transitional justice is a much bigger field than its name implies. Justice figures in decision-making processes of policymakers, in societies coming to terms with their new reality, and in the work of scholars across disciplines.

This has reaffirmed my conviction of the importance of transitional justice in dealing with many of our world’s challenges.

Are there support mechanisms for people in your field, e.g., when working in post-conflict zones, or with evidence of human rights abuses?

I am not aware of support mechanisms, but they would certainly be helpful. On a daily basis, transitional justice specialists read, see, and hear horrifying stories of violence.

On my past visits to Yemen, I was always in awe of the strength of Yemenis in the face of the death and destruction and corruption inflicted upon them. Similar thoughts run through my head when I work on Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia.

While working at a non-governmental organisation in New York, two of my colleagues in Iraq were tortured and killed, for their academic work at a university.

While this incident and many others like it are deeply distressing, they are also an important reminder that it is crucial to continue our work. And, to insist that those responsible for such atrocities – whether they are powerful leaders in the West, or elsewhere – are held to account.

What advice would you give to someone who wants a career in transitional justice?

Never lose sight of what victims and their families want.

Include the affected societies in any transitional justice negotiating process.

Do not view social injustice as distinct from civil and political oppression.

Be wary of imposing a ‘one size fits all’ transitional justice approach to different contexts.

These points may seem like obvious advice, but unfortunately there is still a lot of work to be done in this regard.

I strongly encourage transitional justice professionals to address justice in all its forms as an issue that is integral to many policy areas, including economic development, climate change, education, health, foreign policy, and culture.

Noha Aboueldahab is an alumna of SOAS, University of London and Durham Law School, Durham University.

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