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Does transitional justice protect human rights?

Deplore war? Genocide? Torture? Mass murder?

Wall hanging depicting the call for human rights at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.
Wall hanging depicting the call for human rights at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.
William Fietzer
Balancing human rights under the concept of transitional justice.
C. Elstir

Most people do. They also think the perpetrators of such atrocities are never caught. Or, if they are, are seldom held accountable for their transgressions. Certainly, Minnesotans are too removed geographically to bother with violations of human rights.

One person who doesn’t feel this way is Barbara Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota. Her lecture, “Reframing Mass Violence: Transitional Justice and Human Rights” at the Nolte Center on January 23, 2014 delineated how “transitional justice as a world-wide movement” has changed the arc of human rights prosecutions since the 1980s.

The International Court of Transitional Justice defines the concept as “the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses.” By using such methods as criminal prosecutions, reparations, institutional reforms, and truth commissions, prosecutors have brought human rights violators like Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosovic, and Charles Taylor to justice and established a “new age of accountability.” according to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

The impetus for redressing rights violations was born from post-World War II tribunals like the Nuremburg Trials and the 2005 United Nations declaration that every person has an “inalienable right to the truth.” The mechanism for investigating such “extra-legal, arbitrary, and summary killings” originated out of the “Minnesota Protocol” to investigate suspicious killings. The purpose of such measures is to:

  • Honor and give justice to the victims
  • Prevent reoccurrence
  • Provide public acknowledgment
  • Restore the public record
  • Punish the guilty
  • Reconcile all parties

Frey acknowledged that despite recent successes, transitional justice has not always affected accountability among human rights violators, particularly as applied through truth commissions, local courts, and lustration (disqualification). “Everybody should be held to the same standard,” but polar concepts like “state sovereignty” and “universal justice” have impeded achieving accountability and allowed violators like Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to keep hanging on.

However, the overall impact seems beneficial. Agreeing with Kathryn Sikkink’s “The Justice Cascade,” Frey feels that transitional justice has decreased violations and improved countries’ human rights records. Those wishing to see an example of its effectiveness can check out the next event in this lecture series, a screening and discussion of Pamela Yates’ “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” at St. Anthony Main Theater at 3:30 p.m., February 6, 2014.

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