Daily Archives: September 17, 2012

Doing justice for refugees and IDPs? Confronting displacement through transitional justice

by Roger Duthie and Megan Bradley

Roger Duthie is a Senior Associate in the Research Unit at the International Center for Transitional Justice. Megan Bradley is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she works with the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement.

Serious human rights violations are very often an integral part of displacement crises. Certain violations, such as mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and rape, often cause displacement, while others, such as the destruction of homes and property, can be aimed at undercutting the possibility to return home. Forcible displacement is frequently a deliberate strategy used by parties to a conflict and can in itself constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity. In addition, displacement can leave its victims vulnerable to other abuses, without the protection provided by their homes, livelihoods, communities, and governance structures.

Transitional justice is generally understood to be a response to the legacies of massive and serious human rights violations, one that tries to provide redress for victims and accountability for perpetrators through a set of measures including criminal prosecution, truth-telling, reparation, and institutional reform. Given the links between rights violations and displacement, transitional justice measures certainly have good reasons to address the issue of displacement. And yet, for the most part, displacement has not been the focus of a lot of transitional justice practice and literature.

In 2009, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement began a collaborative research project to examine the role that transitional justice could play as part of the response to displacement. Specifically, we looked at the capacity of transitional justice measures to address displacement, to respond to the justice claims of internally displaced persons and refugees, and to support durable solutions. Importantly, we also looked at the conceptual links between transitional justice measures and the activities of the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors that generally work more directly on displacement.

The project’s final products include a report that highlights our conclusions and recommendations; an edited volume containing the project’s thematic studies; and 14 case studies on country experiences from Central Africa, Colombia, Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, Liberia, Peru, Timor-Leste, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. These are all available to download through the ICTJ and Brookings-LSE Project websites. ICTJ’s website also has an interactive map to highlight the research though photographs and visual data.

What were some of our most important findings? To start with, a number of recent reports, resolutions, and guidelines have acknowledged the need for societies struggling to resolve displacement crises to respond to the justice concerns of IDPs and refugees. These include the 2004 and 2011 versions of the Report of the Secretary-General on the Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-conflict Societies, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s 2010 Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons, the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, and the UN Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons.

Furthermore, while transitional justice measures have not traditionally engaged in depth with the concerns of refugees and IDPs, they have in some places addressed displacement. Restitution of housing, land, and property, for example, is the justice measure probably most directly connected to displacement, and restitution programs have been implemented in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Timor, Kosovo, and Iraq.

Reparations programs can provide benefits for abuses that led to displacement, for harms suffered while displaced, or for displacement itself, but while programs in Guatemala, Peru, and Colombia consider displaced persons eligible to receive benefits, they are yet to receive any for the violation of displacement itself. Truth commissions, as in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and Guatemala, are increasingly recognizing and investigating displacement, with some holding sessions making recommendations on the issue. And an international legal framework now exists to criminally prosecute arbitrary displacement when it qualifies as a war crime or crime against humanity, and cases at the ICC, the ICTY, and in Colombia have included charges of forcible displacement.

We also found that responding to displacement with transitional justice raises a particular set of challenges. For example, given the scope and complexity of large-scale displacement, transitional justice measures have a limited capacity to deal directly with the problem. This is particularly the case with measures that seek to provide redress directly to victims, because the large numbers of displaced people present significant resource and institutional challenges. Criminal justice efforts may also be constrained, both because, with limited resources, prosecutors often prioritize more traditional crimes and may be hesitant to add to the complexity of cases by including displacement crimes, but also because international jurisprudence on forcible displacement as a crime is less developed than it is for other violations.

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