How can transitional justice mechanisms – in particular, truth commissions (TCs) – better accommodate socio-economic issues in order to respond to new cycles of violence in post-conflict settings? On the basis of comparative country experiences, this article from the International Journal of Transitional Justice argues that TCs should expand their mandates to incorporate a legal framework that views the socio-economic root causes of conflict in terms of violations of economic, social and cultural rights. By adopting a human rights-based framework, TCs can contribute to post-conflict recovery by diagnosing the socio-economic causes of conflict and helping to orient national policy agendas towards addressing poverty and the structural inequalities that lead to violence.
In recent years, new incidences of social violence and riots have begun to emerge in post-conflict settings (e.g. Chile, South Africa and Guatemala). Such violence often occurs in countries where TCs have studied past episodes of violence arising out of the same types of socio-economic grievances (e.g. Peru). New cycles of violence caused by rising inequalities and exacerbated by globalisation force us to consider how transitional justice can evolve to better assure the goals of post-conflict recovery, including reconciliation and peace.
A brief historical overview reveals that, from the outset, TCs tended to interpret their mandates narrowly in terms of the violation of civil and political rights and largely overlooked the socio-economic causes of conflict (e.g. Chile, Argentina, El Salvador). Subsequent truth commissions (e.g. Guatemala and Peru) have explored the underlying structural causes of conflict, however, socio-economic conditions were not viewed from a ‘rights’ perspective. TCs have also shown support for the growing consensus that poverty may constitute a contributory factor in the emergence of violent conflict, however, they continue to promote ‘more-of-the-same’ economic development policies that leave the structural root causes of conflict in place and fail to address social justice issues.
In order to prevent the emergence of new cycles of violence, post-conflict recovery must adopt a holistic approach including political, economic, and social structural reform. Transitional justice mechanisms – in particular, TCs – can play a leading role in initiating this process. Key elements of this proposal include:
- The concept of justice underpinning transitional justice mechanisms should be broadened to address the structural causes of violence, in particular, the underlying socio-economic conditions that lead to poverty, exclusion and inequality.
- TCs should expand their mandates to go beyond the narrow focus on civil and political rights abuses by including an explicit focus on the violation of economic, social and cultural rights.
- An expanded mandate for TCs would serve to: (i) highlight the obligations of states to fulfil and provide redress for violations of economic social and cultural rights; (ii) provide a new focus on institutional reform and development in transitional justice processes; (iii) assist in bridging gaps in post-recovery initiatives; and (iv) help to provide a legitimate platform for local actors to advocate for the fulfilment of socio-economic rights.
- This proposal is in line with shifting trends in development thinking (including human rights-based approaches), which have also influenced the UN peace-building agenda over the past decade through the security-development nexus paradigm.
The UN has increasingly recognised the links between its work on peacebuilding and transitional justice, however, the focus has been primarily on criminal trials and reparations. Further efforts are needed to explore the ways in which truth commissions can contribute to post-conflict recovery in so far as they relate to the socio-economic root causes of conflict. These include:
- Diagnosing socio-economic conditions before, during and after conflict, which can set the agenda for longer-term recovery. The truth commission in East Timor provides a recent example of the legal diagnostic approach by analysing violations of both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. It will be important to assess its impact on local actors and the extent to which it serves as a platform for addressing socio-economic grievances.
- Promoting macro reconciliation processes that include social justice as a legitimate priority of post-conflict recovery.
- Putting forward recommendations for development. In the case of Peru, for example, tensions arising from the ‘reparations versus development’ debate could be mitigated by emphasising the obligations of states to implement the full spectrum of human rights, including socio-economic rights, and development.
- Instituting and reinforcing participatory mechanisms. TCs can help to empower marginalised and silenced people by involving them in inclusive dialogue and making recommendations for strengthening democratic participatory mechanisms.