Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
Session C4 5: Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice (Part II)
Thursday, 22/July/2021:
5:30pm - 7:00pm

Session Chair: Marion VIRONDA DUBRAY, University of Geneva, Switzerland
Location: Room 5


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

Chair(s): Sévane Garibian (University of Geneva and University of Neuchâtel, 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


Truth, Justice and Impunity in Post-Franco Spain

Zahira Aragüete-Toribio
University of Geneva, Switzerland

Since the year 2000, family and civil-society groups, which form the so-called movement for the recovery of historical memory, have exhorted different Spanish governments to clarify the fate of the more than 114,000 victims killed and buried in mass graves by Francoist allies and authorities during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the dictatorship. They have also demanded the annulment of the 1977 Amnesty Law, which provided full impunity for these mass crimes after the death of the dictator. Scarce or insufficient governmental and judicial response to such claims led to the development of bottom-up truth-seeking and memorialization actions, which prompted the collaboration between scientists, historical memory associations, family groups, and political representatives in the creation of local post-transitional justice programmes. This presentation examines how ideas and practices connected to truth-seeking and justice are negotiated in disparate regional historical memory projects, and legal tools that aim to mend the effects of deficient state policies and judicial inaction. It also evaluates how a very recent governmental will to position the state at the forefront of the deployment of post-transitional justice initiatives might transform the nature of and approach to Civil War-related anti-impunity paradigms in the country.


Performing Truth? Examining Transitional Justice Practice in West Africa

Kelebogile Zvobgo
1College of William & Mary, USA

Transitional justice (TJ) measures have proliferated over the past half-century. Scholars cite this trend as evidence of an accountability norm that has spread around the globe. Yet, TJ’s spread does not necessarily imply norm diffusion and acceptance; it can also be explained by instrumental adaptation. Essentially, TJ adoption may reflect a desire to perform rather than a substantive commitment. We propose that the difference can be discerned as early as the design stage, with implications for TJ institutions’ operation, outputs, and outcomes. We conceptualize a spectrum: At the lower end, performance, TJ mechanisms are poorly designed, under-resourced, and under-supported by governments, and, at the higher end, substance, they are well designed, adequately resourced, and strongly supported by governments. To begin to disentangle substance and performance, we study truth commissions, generally the first TJ measures implemented after political violence, and we focus on Africa, home to one-third of global commissions. We analyze data on institutional design from the Varieties of Truth Commissions and produce case studies of three West African commissions. We find strong evidence of performative TJ: Many African governments have created commissions that are ill-equipped to uncover the truth. Consequently, they have served to (re)produce, rather than combat, impunity.


Diaspora Mobilization for the Right to Truth in Contexts of Ongoing Political Violence and Forced Displacement: The Case Study of Syria

Julie Bernath
Swisspeace and University of Basel, Switzerland

This paper proposes to analyse how forced displacement and ongoing political violence shapes mobilisations for the right to truth in the Syrian context. It draws from qualitative research conducted in Lebanon and Germany between the end of 2018 and early 2020. This paper first shows that transnational networks of activists, civil society actors and lawyers creatively use the spaces across various host country contexts to mobilize for transitional justice and the right to truth. However, Syrian refugees abroad are not exempt from exposure to transnational repression from the Syrian regime. This shapes what types of demands are voiced publicly, and by whom. Second, host countries who welcomed Syrian refugees have also become a target audience for transitional justice mobilization. Advocacy regarding human rights violations in Syria is not only aimed at confronting the denial and impunity of the Syrian regime, and of the other involved conflict parties. It is also used to question the normalization of the status quo in Syria and to reframe discussions of reconstruction and return of Syrian refugees in the light of demands for the right to truth, justice and accountability.