Transitional Justice

Transitional justice mechanisms can be critical in helping societies cope with the legacies of conflict, including widespread human rights violations. Through both judicial and non-judicial means, transitional justice aims to rebuild social trust, reform justice systems and law enforcement institutions, strengthen accountability for war crimes, promote national reconciliation, support those affected by conflict, and advance democratic governance.

In recent years, countries recovering from conflict have chosen different approaches to transitional justice, tailored to their specific situation. These have included:

  • Criminal prosecutions of leaders and perpetrators responsible for war crimes.
  • Truth commissions, which aim to establish a complete account of crimes and events during conflict.
  • Reparations programmes, which provide material and social support to victims of conflict.
  • Security sector reform, which seeks to counter repressive and corrupt practices and transform security services into representative and professional forces.
  • Monuments and other tributes, which seek to preserve the public memory of victims, raise moral consciousness of past abuses and prevent crimes from recurring.

Establishing appropriate mechanisms is a complicated process, for instance, because governments may lack the political will or ability to pursue transitional justice, particularly in the immediate aftermath of conflict when states remain fragile. Moreover, evidence suggests that for transitional justice to be effective, a combination of different mechanisms is required, enabling a comprehensive approach that may evolve over time.

For example, after the conflict in Sierra Leone, the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law, while a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was tasked with documenting human rights abuses. Reparations have also been administered through a Trust Fund for War Victims. Gender justice for sexual violence has been addressed by these mechanisms, while legal reforms are helping to change the status of women.

Transitional justice mechanisms, both on the national and international level, have addressed widespread and systematic sexual violence committed against women in a number of conflicts since the 1990s.

When national courts have been unable or unwilling to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity, international tribunals have provided a forum for defending the rights of victims. Both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecuted leaders for mass rapes committed during conflict, as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICTR further prosecuted individuals for command responsibility for rape as an act of genocide and an act of torture.

These developments informed the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first permanent international tribunal to try individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Its Rome Statute explicitly includes rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In some post-conflict states, traditional dispute resolution systems offer the justice system much-needed help in identifying cases for the formal system, and adjudicating simpler cases. However, they have yet to demonstrate an advantage in prosecuting cases of conflict-related sexual violence and other atrocities against women, given the lack of adequate victim and witness protection.

Both the end of conflict and the presence of transitional justice mechanisms provide important opportunities to call for legal and judicial reform, in order to ensure compliance with international human rights standards and improve access to justice. For women in some post-conflict countries, such reforms can be critical in abolishing discriminatory laws and practices that keep them dependent on male family members and prevent them from participating fully in peacebuilding and reconstruction.

UN Women’s Approach

UNIFEM (now UN Women) has developed a global programming framework to support women’s access to justice in conflict-affected countries and strengthen accountability, particularly in regard to crimes of sexual and gender-based violence. The programme seeks to promote gender equality in transitional justice mechanisms — including in truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, reconciliation and reparations programmes.

UNIFEM (now UN Women) has also been involved in establishing a community of practitioners in the field of transitional justice, based on input of UNIFEM (now UN Women) field staff. This community of practice focuses on identifying key entry points, capacity challenges and critical areas in which UN Women can engage.

UN Women further seeks to build and strengthen partnerships with governments, civil society, other UN agencies and transitional justice bodies, with the aim of developing more strategic and coordinated approaches to promoting gender-sensitive transitional justice.

Examples of UN Women’s work include:

  • In Colombia, UNIFEM (now UN Women) supported truth commissions and reparations initiatives that promoted the role of women in peacebuilding.
  • In Sierra Leone, UNIFEM (now UN Women) supported a coalition of local and international civil society organizations that mobilized women’s involvement in the TRC and Special Court.
  • UNIFEM (now UN Women) has made a substantive impact in Liberia by mobilizing women for community-level hearings and authoring the gender sections of the TRC’s final report.
  • In Morocco, UNIFEM (now UN Women) ran workshops with women to prepare them for testifying before the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER).
  • In Kenya, UNIFEM (now UN Women) worked with partners to collect the testimony of 300 women to present to the Waki Commission on post-election violence, and provided technical expertise on preparing survivors to testify to truth commissions.