Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Transitional Justice in the Middle East - Working Group II

Transitional Justice in the Middle East - Working Group II

On August 13-14, 2014, CIRS held the second working group meeting under the “Transitional Justice in the Middle East” research initiative. Regional and International scholars and experts gathered for the concluding meeting to solicit feedback on their individual paper submissions. The papers tackled a variety of themes and topics, ranging from theoretical underpinnings of transitional justice, to country-specific case-studies examining the pursuit of transitional justice and its implications.

Implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in the Middle East is a relatively recent phenomenon, and as such, regional scholarly analysis and debates are in their nascent stages. Looking at the experiences of transitional justice in other regions of the globe can potentially provide some lessons to those interested in and working on processes that help societies cope with past atrocities. A significant amount of literature on transitional justice has focused on other parts of the world such as Latin America and Eastern Europe. However, due to the complexities of transitions and variations between different national and political contexts, there are no universal transitional justice mechanisms or tools that can be unilaterally applied. One size does not fit all in transitional justice, but a comparative examination of global experiences allows us to gain a nuanced understanding of the questions that need to be asked in relation to transitional justice processes and goals. As outlined below, various case-studies discussed during the two-day meeting unravel the complexities and layers of transitional justice.

Advocates of transitional justice increasingly call for victim-centered justice as a means of vindication for those who suffered and for promoting reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. While this appears to be a clear rationale for the pursuit of victim-centered justice, its adoption proves to be much more complex. First, identifying the needs of victims that were subject to state repression requires understanding the needs of various victims, and acknowledging that their needs and desires may change over time. Second, should the needs and goals of victims be identified, deciding how they should be addressed also provides a multitude of options. From material reparation to moral compensation, actors on the ground have to decide which institutional mechanism or design is best suited to addressing victims’ goals. In Tunisia, the categorization of women as “secondary victims” highlights that even identifying who were actual victims of past persecution is a challenge. Secondary victims are those that were persecuted, imprisoned, or harassed because of their relationship to men who were deemed a threat to the state. Most women in Tunisia fall under this category, particularly Ennahda women who for decades bore the brunt of state repression. This hierarchy of victimization and the inadvertent relegation of the needs of female victims to a secondary status of victimhood highlight the complexity in identifying and addressing needs of various members of Tunisian society.  

The Tunisian case also sheds light on other core elements of transitional justice. With regards to the timeframe that is subjected to transitional justice, what marks the beginning of the transition? How far back should a society go in addressing past injustices? Working Group participants suggested that different political actors advocate for varying temporal scopes of transitional justice based on their visions of the post-Ben Ali state. While investigative commissions initially looked at abuses that happened after December 2010, Ennahda advocated for stretching back the time-frame until 1956 in an attempt to deconstruct modernist narratives of statehood characteristic of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali state.

Collective memory and memorialization are key aspects of transitional justice for societies dealing with past atrocities. In Egypt, transitional justice practitioners have focused on measures of accountability and implementing institutional reforms, whilst relatively neglecting the memorialization of past injustices. Without a focus on memorialization, participants noted that Egyptians risk exclusionary narratives of the past. In their North African neighbors Tunisia and Algeria, martyrdom has played a dominant role in the formation of collective memories. While martyrdom has been recast for the purposes of “historical justice” in Tunisia, in Algeria it has been used by political elites to stymie efforts towards genuine transition.

Recasting narratives of the past is linked to visions of the future, highlighting the potential manipulation of transitional justice mechanisms by transitional elites. For example, in post-Qadhafi Libya political exclusion has been avidly pursued by Islamist militias as a way to wage a proxy battle against their political opponents. The political isolation law passed in 2013 excludes all those who were involved with Qadhafi’s regime from participation in public life. The politics of exclusion has further fragmented Libya’s social fabric rather than promoting post-conflict reconciliation. It becomes a delicate matter where members of society can be held accountable for their behaviors whilst remaining included in the system. Efforts to move towards accountability upsets society as those that have vested interests in the preceding political order stand to lose their relative positioning. In the debate of peace vs. justice, or more aptly characterized as stability vs. justice, participants discussed extremes of political exclusion, such as de-Baathification in Iraq, to blanket amnesties in Yemen, and their societal repercussions.  In Egypt, addressing accountability has primarily been carried out in the form of criminal trials. Participants noted that while revolutionaries desired going through judicial structures to address past human rights violations, the acquittal of Mubarak on charges of human rights violations and  the mass sentencing of pro-Morsi supporters combined with a trend of speedy trials and relative disregard for due-process, has tarnished the image of the judiciary as an independent branch. Thus, while those in office may have changed, participants noted that there may in fact not be any real transition in Egypt due to the functioning of key state institutions of transitional justice—namely the judiciary and the security sector—in an authoritarian manner.

While Egypt may be an example of a shallow transition, other countries of the Middle East have introduced transitional justice mechanisms without any political transition. The monarchies of Bahrain and Morocco have both introduced truth commissions. The Equity and Reconciliation Commission in Morocco and Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry have both by and large identified human rights violations committed by agents of the security sector. This implicit admission of government responsibility has enhanced the monarchs’ credibility in both domestic and international circles. While the provision of forthright narratives may indicate a shift from the usual trend of “denial and deflection”, these truth commissions have not led to substantial accountability for the past crimes of identified perpetrators. Linking the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms with human rights performance is not a straightforward feat. As participants noted, the comprehensive implementation of transitional justice mechanisms—of both truth commissions and prosecutions—coupled with a hospitable political environment, may have a positive impact on human rights performance. However, it remains that transitional justice is a public policy tool, and as such, its mere existence does not indicate an improvement in human rights’ performance. On the same note however, participants iterated that conceiving of an end point to transitional justice may be problematic. Much of the literature has a teleological approach to transitional justice, conceiving of democratization as the desired end point. This common presumption is perhaps due to the fact that much of the literature on the topic rose out of Latin America. In the context of the Middle East, and in an attempt to broaden the contextual scope of transitional justice, the underlying question remains: what are we transitioning to in transitional justice?

Participants and Discussants:

  • Sahar Aziz, Texas A&M University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Judy Barsalou, El-Hibri Foundation
  • Mietek Boduszynski, Pomona College
  • Terry C. Coonan, Center for the Advancement of Human Rights – Florida State University
  • Thomas DeGeorges, American University of Sharjah
  • Nerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Elham Fakhro, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Doris H. Gray, Al Akhawayn University
  • Bill Hess, George Washington University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Christopher Lamont, University of Groningen
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ibrahim Sharqieh, Brookings Doha Center; Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Chandra Lekha Sriram, Center on Human Rights in Conflict – University of East London
  • Susan E. Waltz, University of Michigan
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Marieke Wierda, Grotius Center for International Legal Studies – Leiden University


Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS