Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
Session A4 4: Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice (Part I)
Thursday, 22/July/2021:
11:30am - 1:00pm

Session Chair: Zahira Aragüete-Toribio, University of Geneva, Switzerland
Location: Room 4


Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice (Part I)

Chair(s): Zahira Aragüete-Toribio (University of Geneva, Switzerland)

This three-part panel examines the blind spots of the “fight against impunity”, a universal guiding principle, which has become central in the international legal system in order to promote peacemaking and peacekeeping, security, democracy, and the rule of law in situations emerging from mass violence. This “fight” is built upon the recognition of four complementary and intrinsically linked fundamental rights: the right to truth, the right to justice, the right to reparation, and the guarantee of non-recurrence. Each of these rights, to which the victims are entitled, is associated with a state obligation: the obligation to investigate, to prosecute and sanction, to repair, and to prevent. These four pillars are indivisible from criminal justice. Nevertheless, even though the notion of the “fight against impunity” has stimulated a vast array of legal and judicial tools to deal with mass crimes, at national and international levels, one observation still remains: in spite of everything, impunity persists in most cases. In such instances, some conflict and post-conflict situations across the globe have shown how the “fight against impunity” has taken the form of a demand for the restoration of truth in the face of rampant governmental and judicial inaction. The three sessions of this panel aim to provide a much-needed interdisciplinary reflection on the ways that the right to truth is mobilized as part of transitional justice initiatives, which take a judicial or extrajudicial form or are enacted through civil society-led endeavours happening sometimes at the margins of state involvement. Presentations from law, philosophy, political science, and social anthropology provide novel insights about the ways in which state and non-state driven transitional justice paradigms engage with notions of truth in relation to but also beyond criminal inquiry and prosecution, in contexts of ongoing impunity for, and/or denial of, mass crimes.


Presentations of the Symposium


Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice

Sévane Garibian
University of Geneva and University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland

This presentation sets the theoretical frame of the upcoming edited volume Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights (RTTR), the result of a four-year research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and in which the authors of this three-part panel have participated. Mass crimes impunity is a reality that has admittedly been denounced, exposed for what it prevents, but it has rarely been considered per se for what it paradoxically generates. This paper delves into the blind spots of the “fight against impunity”, analysing the flaws and stalemates of such a fight and what they entail from an interdisciplinary point of view. In so doing, it addresses the research question around which the book is built: if the right to truth supposes a state obligation to investigate and constitutes the first pillar of the “fight against impunity”, then what meaning and what function does it have when criminal punishment is inaccessible? The presentation outlines the different contributions comprised in the RTTR volume, exploring situations in which retributive justice is not attainable, where impunity is, a priori, irremediable for many reasons which are often combined, hence generating alternative justice mechanisms which aim to address and acknowledge – or conversely to conceal and silence – the traces of unpunished or unpunishable crimes.


What Truth for what Right? Philosophical Perspectives on the Quest for Truth in the Aftermath of Mass Crimes

Julie Saada
Science Po, France

The right to truth raises specific questions for the reflection both on the emergence of this type of norm, on its nature, and on its social and political effects. How can we understand a right that is both enshrined in international human rights law while resulting from mobilizations on the ground by civil society actors? What do these claims for truth about past crimes tell us about the meaning of human rights? In what sense could truth be the object of a right and how is it constructed in these claims? In contexts of impunity, how do the claims for truth made by victims differ from the legal categories used in trials? Finally, what are the expectations regarding the truth and its publicity in contexts following mass crimes or systematic human rights abuses? This paper proposes to present the right to truth within a philosophical framework that will develop three perspectives: that of the regimes of legality in which the right to truth is inscribed, that of the regimes of truth it covers, and, finally, that of the effects of truth expected by the mobilization and use of the right to truth.


The Right to Truth: Content and Expression

Melanie Klinkner, Howard Davis
Bournemouth University, UK

Following atrocity crimes, including forced disappearance, extrajudicial killings and torture, the human (psychological) interest of victims and their relatives in knowing the truth of what happened, clearly justifies a moral right to the truth. Over the past decades this need has found expression and concretisation in international law and jurisprudence placing an obligation on others to provide an objectively convincing and authoritative account of what happened to victims of such heinous crimes. This contribution examines the content of the right to the truth and its suggested components to comprise (a) an authoritative investigation resulting in an explanation which includes an element of victim involvement; (b) the effective, impartial investigation has to take into consideration the wider public implications of the atrocities; and (c) these investigations have to be authoritatively and independently reported. Further, the paper examines (d) how the right to truth has found expression in positive human rights law, in particular, the investigative duty which (especially in the American and European human rights courts) attaches to the right to life and other rights.


About Dissimulation, Erasure and Silence: Social Anthropologists Facing the Missing Traces in Post-Mass Violence Context

Elisabeth Anstett
CNRS / ADES, France

Rather paradoxically, if considering that the subjects of death and material culture have stood among the founding topics of their discipline, social anthropologists have only recently paid attention to the way in which a society bears and copes with the tangible traces of intentional destruction and mass annihilation. When in the field, social anthropologists have indeed had, and still have, to a large extent, to overcome two types of denial. The first form of denial has lastingly occurred inside the discipline itself (for a large set of reasons that are not elaborated upon in this piece), preventing social anthropologists to address the issue of mass crime and genocide directly, even when working in post-genocidal contexts. The second form of denial occurs in connection to the lack of access to information in societies deeply affected by mass intentional death and high levels of impunity. Scholars here are frequently confronted with mutism, dissimulation and lies. This paper will analyse the twofold effect that various ways of silencing the traces of violence have had on the social anthropologist’s work, simultaneously obliging him to work with and on denial.