Human Rights Leader Visits UNMISS

From the Balkans to Mali: what role for information in transitional justice?

By Pierre Hazan

22 years ago, I was a journalist covering the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whenever I think of that period, I have memories of destruction, of prisoners from all sides who lost 20 or 30 kilos, memories of displaced people getting onto a bus and not knowing if they will ever come back to their homes, echoes of bombings and fear.

I was horrified by the tragedy unfolding under our eyes and the crimes committed in the midst of Europe.

At the time, I was also covering the so-called peace process taking place in Geneva. I vividly remember a strange scene of schizophrenic dimensions. It was mid-December 1992.

In the U.N. building, international mediators were trying to reach a peace agreement between the different leaders. Among them was General Mladic. At that time, General Mladic was very powerful. His sense of impunity was such that three years later, he allegedly ordered the Srebrenica massacre.

In another part of that same U.N. building, on that very same day in December 1992, several lawyers were working hard in a much less fancy room. These lawyers had received a mandate from the U.N. Security Council – Resolution 780 – to collect all evidence of war crimes. This international commission of experts was the embryo of the future International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

No one at the time could have ever imagined that the work of these lawyers would be so effective, and that one day, many of the leaders who participated in that peace conference in the room next door, would be indicted, arrested and tried.

Today when I open the newspaper I find news related to justice initiatives everywhere: the current Truth Commission in Brazil; the African Extraordinary Chambers in Dakar putting the former Chadian dictator, Hissène Habré, on trial; the opening of an ICC preliminary investigation in Ukraine.

My point is the following: the tremendous development of judicial activities throughout the world have generated passionate debate around the merits and shortcomings of these justice tools, and about their nature. Critics, including some governments, have accused the ICC of being a neo-colonial, top-down instrument. Others see international justice as a crucial tool for enhancing the rule of law.

The fact is that no tribunal, nor any other justice mechanism, is immune from its political environment. Georges Abi-Saab, one of my dearest law professors, and a brilliant judge at the ICTY, once told me in his usual and canny humor: “We judges are not like cosmonauts released by the weightlessness of space. We live in the realities of this world”.

In the realities of our world, public participation is a key dimension for transitional justice. It is indeed part of its raison d’être. To be fruitful, public participation, from civil society to governments, depends upon access to fair, unbiased and pluralistic information. We believe that access to balanced and independent information is crucial for justice initiatives.

That is why we have put our effort into developing a new media platform called JusticeInfo.Net. It responds to the need for a global, independent, participation-enhancing media focused on justice initiatives. It will give a voice to people in conflict and post-conflict societies and contribute to the prevention of human rights violations. It will also connect the work of tribunals in the global arena to the local realities of the societies affected by these justice processes.

JusticeInfo.Net will also serve as an early warning media outlet, linking the voices of affected communities to mechanisms helping to prevent human rights violations. Adama Dieng, Special Advisor to the U.N. Secretary General on the prevention of genocide, and the African Union’s early warning system are playing a crucial role in sounding the alarm in today’s South Sudan and Central African Republic. We believe that our 40 local journalists covering events daily in Bangui can also make a difference. We see value in linking our media work there to early warning systems such as those of the African Union. JusticeInfo.Net could be the platform to do this.

We believe that the right to information, independent media, and the rule of law are crucial in any society. We also believe that social participation is indispensable for these three pillars of an open, democratic society to be effective. JusticeInfo.Net is the right tool to encourage this participation, bridging the local to the global and back.

A video of Pierre Hazan’s presentation of JusticeInfo.Net at The Hague on May 6, 2014 is available here.

Pierre Hazan is the justice consultant to Fondation Hirondelle. After covering both diplomacy and conflicts as a correspondent for Libération and Le Temps, Hazan has become an expert on the issues concerning justice in divided societies.

Photo: Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, met with Taban Deng Gai (right), South Sudanese rebel chief negotiator, during a recent three-day visit to the country. The visit came in the wake of mass killings earlier in the month in Bentiu and Bor.  Isaac Billy/UNMISS