The impact of COVID-19 on transitional justice and atrocity prevention

26 Jun 2020 9:47

“This pandemic has shed light on existing vulnerabilities of all our societies; if not addressed early on, these vulnerabilities can become risk factors that lead to atrocities in the future and may hamper transitional justice efforts”, said Mô Bleeker, GAAMAC Chair and Special Envoy for Dealing with the Past and Atrocity Prevention at the Swiss Federal Department of Federal Affairs, in her opening statement. She was speaking during an online discussion on how COVID-19 has affected atrocity prevention and transitional justice efforts which took place on 18 June 2020. The event was organised by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in partnership with GAAMAC.

The panel also included Leonor Arteaga, Senior Program Officer at Due Process of Law Foundation and Member of the El Salvador National Commission for the Search of Disappeared Persons, Anjali Manivannan, Director of Programs, World Federalist Movement, Institute for Global Policy and Onyango Owor, Ugandan Lawyer and Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors, Justice Access Point. It was moderated by Sara Bradshaw, Program Director for the Global Initiative for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation (GIJTR).

Authoritarian measures and human rights violations across the world

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface existing problems in societies around the world that are rooted in inequality, exclusion and injustice. In Latin America, many voices are expressing concerns over increased militarisation, populism, gender violence and anti-democratic measures. “We need governments to act promptly and decisively on health issues, but they should also protect key values such as democracy and human rights”, said Ms Arteaga.

Similar tendencies were also observed in some European states with Ms Bleeker highlighting examples of authoritarian abuses such as increased hate speech, exclusion and discrimination against certain minorities and the restriction of media freedom, fundamental rights and democratic processes.

In Uganda, observed Mr Owor, the pandemic has also resulted in an increase of police brutality, authoritarian measures and the violations of media freedom and rights such as the rights to counsel, health and life. COVID-19 has also resulted in the stigmatisation of infected individuals, health workers and survivors of the virus in different regions of Africa with women targeted in particular, explained Ms Manivannan. She stressed the importance of multi-stakeholder sensitization and education initiatives, as well as the inclusion of community and religious leaders in combatting stigmatisation.

Challenges for transitional justice and prevention processes

The pandemic has posed numerous challenges to transitional justice processes put on hold and at risk of being blocked and postponed forever. In El Salvador, it has impacted the process of the search for disappeared persons with most of the fieldwork interrupted, explained Ms Arteaga. Such processes require the active participation of family members who do not have access or knowledge of virtual means.

In addition to human rights suppressions and measures such as the harassment of opposition members, intimidation of journalists or excess of force and torture detention to enforce curfews in different African states, the pandemic has also diverted attention away from processes such as the planned implementation of the African Union Transitional Justice Policy in 2020, said Ms Manivannan.

A resilient community in the face of a crisis

The discussion also focused on the community’s resilience and capacity to adapt in the face of a crisis. Such circumstances have led civil society and state actors across different regions to come up with new approaches to pursue transitional justice processes and maintain contact with survivors of conflict and victims of human rights violations.

Despite connectivity issues in some areas, the high increase of smartphone use and internet penetration in Africa represents an opportunity for civil society to quickly adapt and use technology to record violations and atrocities, explained Mr Owor. The use of technology and new tools need to be accompanied by proper training and webinars, added Ms Bleeker.

“The pandemic has also shown that we can have the capacity, flexibility and creativity to be able to act politically in this reality”, Ms Bleeker concluded. “We can’t act as simple bureaucrats, but we have to explore with our communities and our colleagues our capacities to react to existing realities and processes that need to be addressed now.”