The Arab uprisings and revolutions under way across our region have always been about three related dimensions of the past, present and future: to remove the regimes that now rule; to hold accountable the many people who acted in a criminal manner in the past; and to create more humane and accountable political and economic systems for the future. The uprisings are dealing satisfactorily with the present and the future challenges, but progress is less impressive in addressing the crimes and human rights abuses of the past.
These “transitional justice” mechanisms, as they are commonly known, may prove to be critically important for how smoothly Arab societies make the change from the bad old ways of the past to a better world ahead. As has been the case since the Arab uprisings erupted in December 2010, Tunisia is showing the way for other Arab states, including by establishing a post of minister of human rights and transitional justice. A few days ago, the minister, who is also spokesperson of the government, Samir Dilou, inaugurated a day of open discussions with local associations on how the transitional justice process will proceed in Tunisia.
He acknowledged the public’s concerns about the slow pace of transitional justice mechanisms, but also stressed that a credible effort to bring long-term stability had to be based on widespread popular consultation and consent – a critical point that has been largely absent from other Arab countries whose track record in this realm is unimpressive. A consultation last February on “Transitional Justice and the Arab Spring” at Chatham House in London noted the many different approaches that have been used across the region, including the novel Lebanese-international Special Tribunal to try those accused of killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The emphatic efforts of the Special Tribunal contrast sharply with the reality that no serious effort has ever been made to come to terms with the numerous crimes and killings that have plagued Lebanon. It is no surprise that Lebanon remains chronically plagued by political violence and instability, partly, it would seem, because people who do not expect to be held accountable for their crimes will commit those crimes with total impunity.
Addressing the abuses of the past is vital for a healthy and stable transition from autocratic to democratic political systems in the Arab world. This is clear from the repeated and widespread calls during the past 18 months of Arab uprisings to put on trial those people who are accused of the most egregious crimes, including corruption, abuse of power, torture and other human rights abuses. On my several visits to Egypt last year, the two most common demands I heard repeatedly from all quarters of the population were to make a smooth transition from military to civilian rule, and to hold accountable the leading figures from the Mubarak regime years.
The Chatham House gathering that reviewed numerous transitional justice experiences around the world stressed the importance of a national consultative process: “It is imperative that transitional justice policy should be derived from a process of consultation with the society in transition; indeed, it was asserted that the process leading to the adoption of a transitional justice measure can be as important as the end result. As became apparent throughout the discussion, consultation is necessary to ensure that the vision of justice pursued through the utilization of specific transitional justice measures accords with the vision of justice as understood by the affected society, provided that this complies with international standards for the rule of law and human rights.
“Accordingly, consultation processes can assist in determining the temporal period that will be the subject of scrutiny by transitional justice mechanisms, and which kind of crimes or harms will be the focus of attention.”
This issue will prove crucial to any smooth transition in Syria, where revenge killings against those in and close to the Assad regime could get out of hand very quickly unless a credible, fair and swift transitional justice mechanism is put in place. This should ideally happen after widespread consultations with the public, as is happening in Tunisia these days, but has not occurred to any meaningful degree in other Arab countries. The coordinator of the committee that organized the Tunisian national dialogue on transitional justice, Mohsen Sahbani, said the process aims to tap into associations and nonprofit organizations’ suggestions on how transitional justice procedures could address grievances such as corruption and compensating families for their dead and injured in the revolution.
The national dialogue that is taking place across the country will result in a draft law on transitional justice.
Some Tunisians, like Amnesty International representative Zouhair Makhlouf, have expressed concerns that Tunisia’s ruling coalition government was allowing the destruction of some important documents and evidence of corruption, which highlights the importance of agreeing on a credible transitional justice mechanism early on during the course of a situation of imminent regime change.
Rami G. Khouri is a writer for The Daily Star where this article was published on August 29, 2012