UN appoints rapporteur for justice

On March 23, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) appointed Pablo de Greiff as the first-ever special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. De Greiff is a Colombian national and is currently the New York-based director of research at the International Centre for Transitional Justice. His tenure as special rapporteur begins on May 1.

Like countless other organisations working towards post-conflict peace and development in Africa and elsewhere, the South African Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) welcomes the creation of the mandate to establish accountability for serious crimes. And we hail De Greiff’s appointment in this important position. It is hoped that this development will significantly enhance the visibility of transitional-justice issues within the HRC and the UN system at large.

But what does the mandate of this independent expert mean for the victims of Africa’s seemingly endless conflicts? And how can civil society engage with him? These and other questions were explored at an in-depth two-day IJR consultation held recently with some of the continent’s leading voices working on transitional-justice issues in IJR’s target countries, namely Zimbabwe, Kenya, the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

Titled “African Perspectives on the Appointment and Mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence”, the event sought to solicit the expectations and needs of African civil-society organisations, governments and intergovernmental agencies, working in the field of justice and reconciliation in Africa, on the mandate of the special rapporteur. A comprehensive report of the event is forthcoming.

“Special procedures” is the general name given to the mechanisms established by the HRC to conduct fact-finding and/or monitoring into specific human-rights situations in all parts of the world. Currently, there are 33 thematic and eight country mandates. Mandate-holders (individuals or groups) serve in their personal capacity, are independent — that is, not UN staff — and are unpaid. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides them with some personnel, policy, research and logistical support for the discharge of their mandates.

The functions of this particular special rapporteur will include addressing gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international law through the gathering of relevant information relating to the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, and to make recommendations to affected stakeholders on potential responses and remedial interventions. The resolution that established the position specifies the need for a gendered perspective and a victim-centred approach to be integrated throughout the fulfilment of the mandate. All Special Rapporteurs are guided by a strict code of conduct and are requested to report annually to the HRC and the UN General Assembly.

The authors of the resolution took care to emphasise that the special rapporteur should not take a one-sided approach to transitional justice. The mandate emphasises “the importance of a comprehensive approach incorporating the full range of judicial and non-judicial measures, including, among others, individual prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, vetting of public employees and officials, or an appropriately conceived combination thereof, in order to, inter alia, ensure accountability, serve justice, provide remedies to victims, promote healing and reconciliation, establish independent oversight of the security system and restore confidence in the institutions of the state and promote the rule of law in accordance with international human rights law”.

This all is a seemingly huge amount of work for just one person. Given that the role is voluntary and unpaid, it requires a substantial time commitment as well as constant readiness to respond to urgent situations as and when they emerge. This includes two to three official country visits per year on the basis of requests to and by governments grappling with their own transitional-justice situations. Such visits may also include meetings with NGOs, victims, traditional leaders and so on (bearing in mind that resources are very limited).

As such, civil society can and should play a vital role in relation to the special rapporteur. As explained by one participant with extensive experience in this field, “the mandate holder will play the role that you [civil society] enable the mandate holder to play”. Feeding the special rapporteur with succinct, reliable and accurate information on urgent matters relating to the mandate is one important function civil society can take on. Raising awareness about the special rapporteur and the relevant mandate as well as how it translates into reality is equally important in order to ensure increased participation in the broader process.

Information on urgent developments in the realm of truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence can be submitted by alleged victims (or anyone on their behalf), by NGOs and other partners such as UN agencies, funds and programmes, trade unions, professional associations, and so forth. The special rapporteur will then process and analyse this information and, if the issue is deemed serious enough, will take the matter up with the relevant government and other stakeholders. Also, the special rapporteur is at liberty to attend activities organised by civil society to raise awareness about the respective mandates, and create and strengthen partnerships.

During country presentations at the IJR consultation, it became evident just how many of the African countries represented face urgent transitional-justice challenges. Presentations highlighted the need for truth-telling mechanisms in Zimbabwe and Burundi, an end to impunity in the DRC, the need for reparations in Uganda and Rwanda, and the pursuit of justice and accountability in all countries represented.

South Sudan, where the conversation about transitional justice remains severely obstructed by continued fighting between north and south, incomplete disarmament processes and severe infrastructure and governance challenges, has the potential to dominate this mandate entirely. Add to this the burning transitional-justice challenges that face Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and, in due course, Syria — never mind similarly urgent situations in the rest of the world.

This is no small task. Now more than ever, civil society organisations need to pull together to ensure that efficient collaboration directly impacts this mandate holder’s ability to achieve justice and reconciliation for communities affected by human rights violations.

Friederike Bubenzer is the Acting Head of the Justice and Reconciliation Programme at the South African Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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