Transitional Justice Should Focus on Future: Q&A with Priscilla Hayner

Despite its emphasis on addressing crimes that took place in the past, transitional justice should always focus on making improvements for the future, according to Priscilla Hayner, the author of Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions.

Ms. Hayner said transitional justice institutions such as truth commissions could play an important role in this process, and urged more emphasis to be placed on implementing their recommendations.

“I think [what is important is] usually what’s the last part of the commission’s report, which is: so what does this mean for the future and what needs to change?” she said.

Ms. Hayner said the challenge of addressing peace processes is two-fold. One must first find the space and the depth of expertise to deal with some of the difficult issues the parties to the peace negotiations are dealing with. Secondly, one must look at how to take the peace agreement and make sure it’s implemented—a challenge that continues long after the talks themselves end.

“Peace processes by definition are very challenging, and it’s quite hard, if not impossible, to predict how they’ll play out,” she noted. “They often play out over many years with many different actors involved.”

Speaking with Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute, Ms. Hayner said that strong international engagement can help strengthen the implementation of a peace agreement.

“I think we’ve learned from past processes that have often tended to be…more closed and not only confidential but very limited [in] ways, to engage in the process for those people who are not actually sitting at the table as a party,” she said.

This discussion was part of a series of interviews done on the margins of ICM’s second retreat on social inclusion, political participation, and effective governance in challenging environments, held on March 13-14.

Listen to the interview:

Priscilla, in your view, what is lacking in peace processes today given the failure of many agreements to lead to lasting peace?

Peace processes by definition are very challenging, and it’s quite hard, if not impossible, to predict how they’ll play out. They often play out over many years with many different actors involved. There are those who are parties to the peace negotiation, and then there are usually a number of international entities who are facilitating or helping to mediate or providing expertise when needed on specific aspects, and the challenge is perhaps two-fold. One is to find the space and the level—or the depth—of expertise to enter into some of the extremely difficult issues that the parties are usually contemplating, which range in each context, but may include difficult issues around accountability for past crimes, [or] other kinds of fundamental democratic reforms that may be discussed in other ways, to change the political makeup so that more actors are included in the democratic system.

But the other challenge is how one can then take the final conclusions and whatever peace agreement that comes out and make sure it’s implemented, and that challenge continues long after the peace talks themselves end. And there are, of course, many efforts around this from the international community. But perhaps there’s a way that we can strengthen the implementation side of this so that the peace agreements—which in many cases spell out in considerable detail what should and has been agreed to happen for fairly substantial reforms—can actually be implemented. That’s something that I think is very well placed to benefit from a strong international engagement.

Can you give any examples of these moments of opportunities in peace processes which could help move toward this more transformative and long-term approach?

Well there’s interesting examples recently where there’s a broader array of entities, beyond the fighting parties, that are brought to the table in one form or another. Sometimes they’re brought in as experts, sometimes they’re brought in as victims, such as recently in Colombia—the peace process has included five different rounds of 12 individuals, each of them a victim themselves of the conflict. There were 60 people in total that came over the space of five months to present to the parties, engage with them, and that’s a first. So that’s sort of a new model we could say—that’s not sufficient and as many people have said in the Colombian context, it’s not just about having five one-off meetings with groups of persons—victims in this case—but to continue to engage civil society throughout the process, which of course is continuing. There are efforts to do that, there are many meetings and visits and such.

I think we’ve learned from past processes that have often tended to be—not all of them but a number of them—more closed as processes and not only confidential but very limited [in] ways to engage in the process for those people who are not actually sitting at the table as a party. So, there’s some useful lessons to be learned there. Then, of course, as I said, the question of opportunity is that moment after an agreement—what happens next and how does one prevent either the momentum from being lost. Or, in some cases, there needs to be political support as well, or popular support for real change to take place, and that also has been difficult in some contexts.

Turning to transitional justice, how can the tools of transitional justice be used not just to redress crimes of the past, but also to improve the future in conflict-affected societies?

Well, transitional justice is fundamentally about looking at and addressing crimes that took place in the past—sometimes a very recent past, sometimes more a longer-term past. That can be very important for a transition to take place and for people to feel that their voices are heard. Whether that’s through judicial processes or equally non-judicial processes—usually a mix of different kinds of institutions and initiatives—all those can be important, but if one were to set up these kinds of transitional justice mechanisms primarily for the purposes of handling past issues, then that’s going to be limited and not so effective in terms of really making a change for the future.

So clearly there’s an emphasis and many institutions that are working on these issues recognize that and have for many years. And the transitional justice institutions themselves, such as truth commissions, often perceive their role as helping to change things for the future, and that peace needs to be strengthened.

We see many examples where truth commission reports come out [and] are quite strong in what they say, are quite detailed in the recommendations. They may have dozens or even hundreds of pages of very detailed recommendations, dozens and dozens of specific ideas as to what could change. This is essentially reflecting lessons learned from past practices in order to say, “Okay, it’s not just around specific human rights issues such as further accountability, or further inquiries, or further access to files, in terms of victims’ rights, but also other kinds of democratic reform, educational reform, institutional reforms.” And there’s, I think, more of an opportunity represented in truth commission reports than people often realize at first glance.

We focus on the conclusions and the findings that are, in many cases, striking and extremely well-founded, based on extraordinary amounts of in-depth research and testimony taken by a commission over several years. But I think [what is important is] usually what’s the last part of the commission’s report, which is: so what does this mean for the future and what needs to change? That I think we need to find a way to strengthen. From an international perspective, there’s an opportunity and I think even a responsibility, to take advantage of that.

In fact, it’s not the end of a process when something like a truth commission ends, it’s the beginning of another process; it has to really continue. There needs to be a new investment of energy in order to say: How can we work together? How can we support those national actors that really are in a position to move some of these forward? And usually there is political—not always but often—will for some of the changes that are very important, but they may lack resources.

There may be a lack of political will or some political resistance, but that can also be overcome by really working through why it is actually an advantage to everyone to have these kinds of democratic, rights-respecting etc. reforms put in place. So it’s an opportunity that has been missed not for lack of good efforts. I think in too many cases it’s an area that we can do much better in the transitional justice field.

Given that we’re having this conversation alongside the Independent Commission of Multilateralism [retreat], is there a role for multilateral organizations in really supporting and pushing ahead this implementation?

There is. Where you see, for example, more robust implementation of recommendations from truth commissions—and there’s a couple of interesting examples there—it’s often because there’s been a close partnership, and pressure as well from international community. The United Nations in various aspects has played a very useful role in working quite closely with national actors—for example in El Salvador over 20 years ago.

Coming from the Secretary General’s office in New York, they were actually setting out which of these recommendations can be implemented and how can we support that. And then the in-country offices of the United Nations were working with the parties to the peace agreement to really think, “Okay, so what can we help to implement here based on the recommendations and the findings of the truth commission?” [It was] A very robust posture by the UN, which was extremely helpful in actually finally ‘calendarizing’ and pushing through some fairly important reforms, especially, for example, in the judicial area, or where the lack of judicial independence was quite an important problem in El Salvador at the time.

There’s other examples since, but to be honest I think multilateral institutions—be it the United Nations, be it regional organizations—could easily have a much more robust posture in pushing and partnering with the local entities to say, “OK listen, these are our fundamental issues that have been identified—what is it that we can work with you on to help put them in place?” It’s not to say there aren’t a number of other reform proposals already on the table, including coming from the UN and other institutions, but in general the transitional justice type approaches bring up other kinds of issues, or identify them in a different way, and reflect the voices of the people that have suffered the violations and the violence. So it’s an opportunity to give more support to those very people that have helped to design these kinds of ideas and recommendations.

Great. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Thank you so much.