UN Joint Study on the Contribution of Transitional Justice to the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes

In September 2016, the UN Human Rights Council requested the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide to prepare a joint study on the contribution of transitional justice to the prevention of atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing).

The report, which was released on 1 March 2018, demonstrates ways in which comprehensive transitional justice can contribute to breaking cycles of violence that may amount to atrocity crimes. It focuses on measures that can be taken in governance and civil society institutions, and on the level of culture and personal dispositions.

Governance Institutions

An often overlooked factor in atrocity prevention is constitutional reform. Constitutions can contribute to prevention by constraining governmental exercise of power through laws, and articulating values a society aspires to. New constitutions can therefore help delineate the past from the future in post-conflict societies. The Special Rapporteur and Special Adviser recommend specifically the drawing up of a Bill of Rights and the establishment of a specialized constitutional court to prevent the recurrence of atrocity crimes.

Following large-scale violence, effective security sector reform can help reduce atrocity risks and build resilience to atrocity crimes. In particular, robust civilian oversight mechanisms - in addition to greater diversity, vetting and training, and robust operating procedures regarding the use of force - are vital. A Ministry of Defense where most staff, particularly in senior positions, are civilians is recommended by the report, as are parliamentary committees on defense and security.

Civil Society Institutions

The often positive role played by a free and diverse civil society, including the media, has long been recognized in atrocity prevention. The report demonstrates that in addition to civil society’s familiar functions in monitoring, reporting and advocacy, civil society can contribute to atrocity prevention by ensuring that leaders are held accountable, fostering respect for the rule of law, and performing inclusive governance.

Culture and Personal Dispositions

For institutional reform to be effective in preventing the recurrence of atrocity crimes, it must find support in the local culture and be reflected in personal convictions. The authors point to history education and the role of religious leaders and actors as being able to play a constructive role. National curricula that ensure that the history of atrocities is taught in an objective and multi-faceted manner can greatly contribute to the prevention of their recurrence. Individual religious actors have the capacity to spread messages of peace, tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect, which can reduce tension in societies. In order to tap into this potential, the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes should be implemented.

The Special Rapporteur and Special Adviser stress that comprehensive transitional justice policies, when tailored to specific situations and contexts, can contribute to breaking cycles of impunity and marginalization and so decrease the risk of recurrence of atrocity crimes.