The AU’s new transitional justice policy could be a game-changer


This year’s annual pilgrimage to the African Union Summit recently held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in February under the theme ‘The year of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons: towards durable solutions to forced displacements in Africa’ did not create much media thunder — yet it is probably the most important in recent years, both thematically and in its undertakings.

Besides the change of the rotating chairmanship from Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (who led the continental body’s ongoing institutional reform process) to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the summit came and went as a ‘business as usual’ event, with very little to expect for the common person. After all, our leaders have historically proved to be good at talking to and about themselves with little respite for the suffering majority. 

Despite the perennial pessimism associated with most affairs regarding the 55-member body, this year the leadership pleasantly surprised us by unanimously adopting the African Union Transitional Justice Policy (AUTJP).

The AUTJP was adopted after nearly a decade of civil society policy formulation, lobbying and advocacy that was painstakingly led by the South African-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), and its unanimous adoption brought a huge sigh of relief and excitement among its key proponents. At its core, this policy framework is an African model and mechanism for dealing “not only with the legacies of conflicts and violations but also governance deficits and developmental challenges” facing our continent. 

For a continent whose history is characterised by various political upheavals and struggles for liberation and socio-economic transformations, including slavery and slave trade, the fight against colonialism and apartheid, wars against military authoritarian regimes as well as struggles for and entrenchment of participatory constitutional democracy, human rights and the rule of law, a transitional justice policy was long overdue.

The ideas espoused in this policy not only resonate with Article 4 of the Constitutive Act of the AU that calls for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, respect of the sanctity of human life and the condemnation and rejection of impunity, but also underscores key aspirations of Agenda 2063 that espouse a “peaceful and secured Africa” that embodies “good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law”. And there is more: the new policy is also squarely in the globally accepted United Nations sustainable development goals that were adopted in 2015, specifically Goal 16 that seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

So the adoption of the AUTJP is indeed applauded as an occasion that should put the momentum for peace, justice and reconciliation into high gear. Yet this is not the time to celebrate. Ours is a continent that has a history of adopting and pronouncing very important (often high sounding) policy positions, frameworks and legal instruments, but also sadly has a very poor record of implementation. And the most unfortunate reality is that the AUTJP has not been adopted as a Treaty of the AU that would automatically become a legal instrument. In legal terms and in international relations parlance, the new policy is regarded as a ‘soft law’ that will have to benefit from the benevolence of political powers of the continent. 

Here lies the first challenge because so often the leaders themselves are implicated in committing gross human rights violations in their own countries by persecuting those who oppose them, or are so corrupt as to impoverish even their own states — causing many refugees to flee their homes in search of safer destinations or greener pastures.

For the AUTJP to succeed, all key role-players should come to the party, including civil society, national governments, regional economic communities such as SADC and ECOWAS in Southern and West Africa respectively, as well as funding partners so that we run with it as a collective responsibility. Our first major task is to sensitise the continent by popularising this policy in a manner that it is not viewed as a ‘regime change agenda’ but one that is going to strengthen and solidify the already existing aspirations of the African Union.

We can build on this year’s AU theme. It can be argued that the adoption of the AUTJP policy this year was also in hindsight as it accelerates resolving the issue of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons. The situation in South Sudan, where more than a third of the population are refugees is untenable. The growing crisis in Anglophone Cameroon is urgent as women and children are displaced on a daily basis. The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be a mess. While the Central African Republic is increasingly becoming a forgotten catastrophe yet resurging violence is displacing people in their thousands. Libya continues to hog the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. And Somalia is largely as it was since 1991, with many new issues. 

The recent spate of xenophobic violence in South Africa will soon become the norm as long as there is no durable solutions being found both in their host country and in their countries of origin. Worse still, the most recent Afrobarometer research findings show that many citizens of the continent, particularly the youth, have an urgent preponderance to migrate from their countries.

The new AUTJP could be the game changer — a framework that can be used to resolve past violent conflicts as well as to sustain peace and development in Africa. It is in everyone’s interests to make it work.

Dr. Webster Zambara is a Senior Project Leader of Peacebuilding Initiatives at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town.

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Webster Zambara
Webster Zambara

Dr Webster Zambara is a project leader of Peacebuilding Initiatives at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He recently spent eight days building the capacity of women mediators in Cameroon at the invitation of United Nations Women


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