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Video: Transitional Justice After Mass Atrocities

Lessons in Leadership: Criminal Justice Approaches for Preventing Mass Atrocities

This video discusses the origins of transitional justice in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Second World War and discusses four key forms of transitional justice – truth seeking, prosecution, reparations, and prevention. Experts Yasmine Chubin and Ambassador Stephen Rapp as well as Rohingya activist Yasmin Ullah discuss the goals and challenges of transitional justice efforts, as well as the role of criminal justice professionals in the aftermath of mass atrocities.


- [Regina Spiegel] After the liberation, this Russian-he happened to be a colonel in the army. You know what he told me? He said, "We'll give you guns and you can go around any German you see, you can shoot." And we're thinking to ourselves, what in the heck is he talking about? I didn't like what they were doing to us so why should I go do that? Justice, yes. Vengeance, no.

- [Narrator] The aftermath of the Holocaust raised questions about how best to pursue justice in the wake of mass atrocities. The World War II Allied powers provided a model in the trials at Nuremberg. 

Today, perpetrators face justice before the International Criminal Court established under the Rome Statute in 1998 and through hybrid tribunals as well as domestic courts at the national level. Despite these efforts, when mass atrocities occur perpetrators rarely face justice in courts. Transitional justice refers to a range of tools, mechanisms, and approaches that societies emerging from periods of widespread violence and conflict may adopt as they seek to confront, address, and heal from the past.

- [Yasmine Chubin] There are many different definitions of transitional justice but essentially it's the different processes, mechanisms that are put in place in a society after it's gone through mass atrocities. How are we going to address mass atrocities that have occurred in a specific country?

- [Yasmin Ullah] We're living in a world that's constantly being embroiled in you know, authoritarianism and those who enable them. And transitional justice would require holding the victims in the center of it all and ask them what do you think could help you heal from this?

- [Amb. Stephen Rapp] There are really four goals of transitional justice. They include truth seeking. They include prosecution of those that are most responsible. They include reparations for the victims, communities that were affected by these crimes. They also include various steps to prevent the recurrence of these atrocities in the future.

- [Yasmine Chubin] So I think after a period of mass atrocities in a country in order to achieve justice and move towards healing, truth is really the first step in that. Just establishing a historical record. I think victims- for victims to feel recognized.

- [Yasmin Ullah] We realized that the only way that we could actually bring about the sense of justice is that genocide determination, and recognition that we've lost so much as a people.

- [Amb. Stephen Rapp] I am a strong believer that one does need a justice process in which serious offenders are held to account. Unless you've got a process to hold those folks to account they're gonna expect impunity. Also, what's happened in Liberia, for instance. We prosecuted a leader of Liberia, Charles Taylor for the crimes he committed in Sierra Leone. When you go to Liberia, people say what about the crimes committed there? But because they had a peace process in which many of the perpetrators ended up in power, it's very difficult to establish justice for those crimes.

- [Yasmine Chubin] In 1994, there was a genocide in Rwanda, and following that genocide there was debate about how to go about addressing the crimes that occurred there. So initially within Rwanda, there were Gacaca courts, those were community courts. And then through the UN Security Council, the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up. And through that tribunal, the top level, the most responsible for the crimes that occurred during the genocide were prosecuted there.

- [Amb. Stephen Rapp] I'm very proud of what the Rwanda tribunal was able to establish in holding to account the senior leaders responsible for the genocide and establishing the truth about the murder of 800,000 men, women, and children. That record was revealed and those leaders of that, including the former prime minister, including the most powerful military leader, including the media leaders, including even clergy and others that had participated in the killings were held to account. I think that had a powerful impact in the region. When you do have prosecutions, it's important that justice be done and that justice be seen to be done and that that's the justice that the people in the country are seeking. It's a process that has to be developed in partnership with the affected community. Has to reflect their values and expectations.

- [Yasmine Chubin] Some of the challenges of international mechanisms or tribunals is that they are far and removed from the local context of where the crimes occurred. So they'll be physical barriers, there are cultural barriers, there are linguistic barriers. As much as we can, I think when we think about transitional justice, we should try to think about local justice or regional justice. Of course, we have to keep in mind that right after or still during the occurrence of certain atrocities that that may not be possible.

- [Amb. Stephen Rapp] And then you've got the process of reparations and hold people to account. But when your property is destroyed, when everything you built is gone, when you've lost the breadwinner in your family, one seeks a compensation for that amputation. Sadly, often in these situations, there's little in the way of reparations but it's extremely important that efforts be made in that direction. Sometimes they can only be symbolic.

- [Yasmin Ullah] It's important for law enforcement authorities and you know, those who would- basically those who would have to make decisions on a very, very high level to understand that every single thing that they do have impact on the community and the impact might not be, you know, might not be seen right away. The impact might actually show up years and years later. I think transitional justice is important because without, you know, international justice mechanism weighing heavy on each of these different countries to hold their you know, authorities accountable, there is little hope for us to be able to get away from all of these, you know, vicious cycle.

- [Yasmine Chubin] To me, it's crucial for criminal justice actors to be involved in accountability efforts, both during the mass atrocities and after they occur. And do whatever they can do within the tools of that justice system to stop what is happening. And after the occurrence of mass atrocities they're in the best place to engage in truth seeking. But also I think it's important not to forget that they're the best place in reforming the system, the laws, the justice sector so that it is equipped to avoid the occurrence of atrocities again in the future.

- [Narrator] Research indicates that impunity for past violence is a significant warning sign of future mass atrocities. Justice and accountability efforts can play a critical role in preventing future atrocities.