November 17, 2022
Taking up space for decolonisation: civil society initiatives in Portugal
The new episode of the Justice Visions podcast expands on historical truth-seeking initiatives in the (post-)colonial state. In this miniseries co-hosted by postdoctoral research fellow Dr. Cira Pallí-Asperó, we look into formal and informal truth initiatives in European countries dealing with settler and overseas colonial legacies. In this episode, we zoom in on Portugal to discuss decolonisation in a context of explicit glorification of the imperial and colonial past. What kind of initiatives have been taken place? Led by who and for which purpose?
Our guest is Dr. Bruno Sena Martins, researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra. First and foremost, he stresses, the anti-colonial struggle is not something of the past: “it is a mission for this generation to (…) decolonize the present and to decolonize Europe”. In Portugal, critical consciousness about the colonial past has only recently been shaping up in the public debate with the establishment of different initiatives led by civil society organisations and by minority groups of people of African descent, with a significant role of academia.
Dr. Bruno Sena Martins talks about what kind of openings and opportunities have been created to address the legacies of the Portuguese colonial past; and how civil society organisations have been advocating to redress issues of inequality, recognition, social, racial, and historical justice. “This is a movement where different people, different actors claim that it is important to look at the past in a critical perspective. It is important to acknowledge that the colonial violence is still with us”.
October 27, 2022
Historical Truth in the Nordic Countries
A new Justice Visions miniseries on historical truth-seeking initiatives in the (post-)colonial state, will look into formal and informal truth initiatives in European countries dealing with settler and overseas colonial legacies. In this miniseries co-hosted by Dr. Cira Pallí-Asperó, we pick up on some of these debates to explore how different actors are engaging in truth-seeking initiatives and what this means for the domain of transitional justice.
In this episode, we talk with Dr. Malin Arvidsson, a commissioner at the Swedish Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset, about a number of state-sanctioned historical truth-seeking initiatives that have taken place in the Scandinavian context. The goal of these commissions was to examine the impact that assimilation policies of the Scandinavian welfare states had on indigenous peoples in those countries.
The colonial past is a corrosive component in the relations between the former colonizing powers and their colonial subjects, particularly over issues of historical responsibility of recognition and redress of colonial injustices. Although the demands to redress historical injustices linked to colonialism are not new; since the Black Lives Matters movement took over the streets in 2020, they have taken a renewed spotlight in the public and political debate.
Within this framework, the transitional justice paradigm is increasingly being used to think about historical injustices, as historical truth-seeking initiatives within the post-colonial context (both formal and informal) are increasingly using the logic and rhetoric of transitional justice; for instance, by systematically referring to its core objectives in their mandates (i.e., truth, accountability, reparation, non-recurrence). But how are these transferred to the post-colonial context? and what are the implications thereof?
As Malin points out, this raises key questions: “(…) if you talk about historical injustices in this long-time perspective, what are even the actors that we are looking at, because for example, the state and the Church of Sweden has an intertwined history.” Awaiting the results of this ongoing process, one of the main contributions foreseen is building a strong archive that is essential for follow up by policy makers, civil society: “what will remain is an archive of interviews, research reports (…) that have been commissioned by the commission that can serve as a basis for further advocacy and claims-making.”
September 30, 2022
Reparations Beyond The State
Reparations are a key mechanism to redress violations of international law. They are mostly conceived within state-like frameworks and related to measures administered by states. Yet, violence has increasingly shifted away from states to non-state actors such as armed groups. In a new Justice Visions podcast episode, we talk with Katharine Fortin (Netherlands Institute of Human Rights) and Luke Moffett (Queen’s University) about the need to broaden the conversation about engaging armed groups and encouraging them to remedy the harm they have caused.
Currently, around 60 to 80 million people are living under the control of armed groups. In their practices, armed groups are increasingly taking on public ‘semi-government’ functions, using the law and employing judicial processes. These practices pose new challenges and questions for the International Criminal Court, as Katharine argues: “Is armed group law, law? Are armed group courts, courts?” and if they are, “should the international community be asking armed groups to investigate if a particular violation has taken place?” Yet, within the human rights framework it is still controversial to engage with armed groups. Can we somehow hold them accountable through the mechanisms they employ, and broaden the conversation about how to deal with the violence and harm they cause?
These are crucial questions, as the existence of armed groups is part of the reality in many post-conflict societies. Using the example of Northern-Ireland, Luke points to the ongoing existence of armed groups, even 25 years after the peace process. In Northern Ireland about 13.000 people, amounting to one out of a hundred adults, are currently members of armed groups. Yet, Luke posits that armed actors could also be approached as potential community leaders and peace-builders, with a view to protecting civilians. “It comes down to how do people act and interact as victims, civil society and armed groups in these situations. Where in transitional justice we are often are looking at post-conflict cases and post-authoritarian governments, in these situations it’s protracted conflict, it’s re-emerging conflicts, fragile societies where there is real insecurity for victims to come out and speak out. How do we better protect and allow people to access some sort of remedy without causing disadvantages for them?”
August 30, 2022
Bridging Syrian and international justice efforts
The Syrian conflict has underlined some of the weaknesses of the international justice system: the lack of formal justice avenues has left victims of international crimes largely in the cold. Conversely, this stalemate has also led to a transnational justice scene, arising from creative and innovative Syrian and international justice initiatives. This last Syria podcast episode sheds a light on some of the pitfalls and achievements that could inform justice actors in other conflicts.
While local civil society’s efforts to document crimes and collect evidence are remarkable, Mohammad Al Abdallah, director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is pessimistic about their outcome. Mr. Al Abadallah fears that as long as there are no domestic justice processes, accountability would fail to achieve its goals. Nonetheless, he is adamant about the importance of credible, authentic documentation: “to help justice processes in the future to start on the right footing. The second thing is to take any available interim steps and use them to the extent possible.”
Within this context, the work of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM), is vital. Its head, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, argues that a two-way communication with Syrian civil society actors is key for this UN entity that acts as a repository and conducts structural investigations into crimes. Ms. Marchi-Uhel interprets the mandate of this justice catalyst “as encompassing support to forms of justice broader than criminal justice. And the search for missing persons is an obvious component of that.”
The rich and stimulating conversations we had through this podcast mini-series on justice efforts for Syria remind us that transitional justice concepts and initiatives cannot work without innovation and creativity. Justice Visions and Impunity Watch hope that these conversations will inspire justice actors in other contexts and encourage them to think outside of the so-called “toolbox”.
Mohammad Al Abdallah is the founding Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. Prior to 2011, Mohammad has been active as a Syrian human rights and democracy researcher, among other at Human Rights Watch. Mohammad is a former prisoner and survivor of torture who was imprisoned twice in Syria for his work on human rights and political reform. At SJAC he is directly involved in transitional justice projects and the missing persons portfolio.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel is the head of the IIIM since 2017. Prior to joining the IIIM, she was the Ombudsperson for the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions concerning ISIL/Da’esh, Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities. Previously a judge in France, Catherine served in the same capacity with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
July 14, 2022
Syrian Victim and Survivor Groups at Forefront of Justice Efforts
Syrian victim and survivor groups have been increasingly active in informal transitional justice processes. They assert their political agency and demonstrate that survivors and victims are the key stakeholders in justice initiatives. This episode zooms in on the origin of victims’ activism and some main break-throughs.
Victims and their families felt that international efforts were almost nonexistent or failed to meet their demands. Christalla Yakinthou, a scholar of transitional justice at Birmingham university, argues that in response to this stalemate, Syrian victims’ groups started to emerge around 2016. “In that dual context of the escalation of violence and the feeling that the international community wasn’t going to do anything, there was this emerging sense of what can we do for ourselves?.” The moment was ripe for the establishment of groups that assist victims and propose concrete solutions to their justice needs, such as finding out the fate of the disappeared and the missing.
Within this context, in 2021 five victim groups launched the Truth and Justice Charter, in which they set out their short-term and long-term justice perspectives. Yasmen Almashan, of the Caesar Families Association -one of the Charter groups- explains: “justice paths are usually long. But there are urgent needs and necessities for us as families that must be prioritized. These are an immediate halt to torture, inhuman treatment, and sexual crimes in detention centers and prisons, revealing the fate of the forcibly disappeared, and returning the remains of those killed.”
These efforts have not gone unnoticed internationally. Riyad Avlar of the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison upholds that victim groups proved to the international community that victims have the potential to propose and lead initiatives that meet their needs. “The most important issue that we are currently working on as victims’ groups is a mechanism for missing persons in Syria. The mechanism must be international, this is crucial.”
Even if victim groups managed to create their own spaces for activism and impose their participation, they carry a huge burden on their shoulders. Agency comes with a cost, as Hiba al-Hamed of the Coalition of Families of persons Kidnapped by ISIS explains. “It is not easy, remembering every time these sad stories, talking about our beloved ones and mentioning personal details.” Their struggle and the realization that the road is long, weighs heavy. “But our voices at least are heard and nothing is imposed on us,” Hiba argues.