The protests that swept across parts of the Middle East beginning in December 2010 have had a dramatic impact on the political and social landscape of the region. Rulers once thought largely immovable, from Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Egypt’s Hosni Mobarek and Libya’s Muammer Qaddafi all within a matter of months of each other were unceremoniously ousted. To date, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen have seen their strongmen leaders removed, an ongoing civil war has engulfed Syria, conflict and violence have shaken Bahrain, and other countries in the region have experienced various levels of instability and expressions of public outrage.
While regimes may have fallen and authoritarian leaders deposed, these Middle Eastern countries are still undergoing processes of political transition and social change. What political formation ultimately emerges in each state will depend on its specific context and according to its own timetable. Whether new systems and structures of governance are profoundly different from those they replaced remains to be seen. However, what can be said with some assurance is that region-wide a common theme undergirding all of these struggles and the mass public protests that epitomize them has been the notion of citizens’ rights to justice and dignity.
Societies that are in processes of transition from earlier systems of governance to new ones—particularly those that have overthrown authoritarian rule—often contend with the thorny issue of reconciling with their past before they can effectively construct a new future. Experiences in other parts of the world where political movements have ousted dictatorships demonstrate that in order to build durable peace in post-conflict situations, citizens must be confident that there are legitimate structures which redress past grievances. The idea that the administration of justice during a period of political transition is critical to peace-building, referred to broadly as “transitional justice”, emerged in the post-World War II era but gained significant momentum from the 1980s onwards.
Transitional justice encompasses the range of policies, practices, and mechanisms, both judicial and non-judicial, that post-conflict countries implement in order to reconcile with the legacy of their “evil” pasts, to address residual social and political grievances, reconstruct the state–citizen relationship, and ensure that emerging political processes have requisite legitimacy and public support. Amidst a host of areas of engagement, the core functions of a transitional justice system is to end any ongoing human rights violations and prevent future ones, investigate past abuses, provide redress to victims and ensure that perpetrators are penalized, and create mechanisms for ensuring a durable peace through supporting national reconciliation. Explicit means by which transitional justice is implemented include trials and reparations, reinvigoration of the rule of law, establishment of truth and reconciliation tribunals, and institutional reform, particularly of the security sector.
Establishing rule of law and coming to terms with past human rights abuses and political marginalization within a post-conflict context is no easy matter. In periods of transition, institutions are often weak or absent, financial resources limited, and structures of governance stretched to capacity. Additionally, security may be diminished, the citizen population mistrustful and traumatized, and there may be a lack of adequate political will towards both serious reform and to address past injustice.
Transitional justice has received significant scholarly attention in many other parts of the world, focusing on authoritarian regimes moving toward democracy, and there is a rich body of literature on the topic. While there has been limited academic exploration of transitional justice in relation to the Middle East, recent events have reinvigorated interest in the topic. Social, economic, and political justice were key themes raised by protestors during the uprisings across the Middle East. Several Middle Eastern countries have placed the issue on their national agendas, and have launched transitional justice mechanisms, consultation processes, and assorted areas of engagement. An examination of transitional justice within the context of the Middle East is both timely and necessary, and can contribute significantly to the existing body of scholarship on the subject.
In line with this, in the 2013-2014 academic year CIRS is launching a multi-disciplinary research initiative on “Transitional Justice in the Middle East.” The purpose of this project is to examine unfolding experiences of transitional justice across the Middle East in the post-uprising era.
Some of the thematic topics and areas of inquiry we will address through this research endeavor include:
- Traditionally, transitional justice has focused on addressing human rights violations and political abuses, not on economic accountability. The Middle Eastern uprisings demonstrate also that the strong public interest in holding regimes accountable for “economic crimes” as well, such as rampant corruption and nepotism. Can transitional justice mechanisms be effective in dealing with economic crimes and corruption, and if so, how do the Middle Eastern states provide us with greater elaboration on this?
- Is there a “right” time to institute transitional justice processes and a “wrong” time? Experts have debated the wisdom of initiating transitional justice too quickly in different Arab states, given that already a number of them have adopted transitional justice mechanisms but have done so in the absence of political settlement and without devoting appropriate time for consultation. How are different states coping with the historical legacy of human rights violations, amidst contexts of ongoing violence, instability, and sectarianism?
- While transitional justice may invigorate domestic attention to social justice, rule of law, as well as recognition of and compensation for past wrongs, all post-conflict societies may not feel inclined or be able to devote equal attention to these various mechanisms. Internal political dynamics of different countries may impact on what sort of transitional justice can be achieved. Post-conflict Middle Eastern countries have in the past shown a tendency to not want to confront past wrongs as they move forward with peace-building. In Lebanon, for example, national reconciliation efforts have been informed by the desire to avoid inflaming sectarian tensions, and as such past wrongs have not been fully confronted.
- How do transitional justice mechanisms work when the political system is actually in a stalled transition or not even in transition at all? In Morocco, the regime remains intact, but the state has proactively engaged in processes for addressing past injustices and human rights abuses. Can transitional justice mechanisms actually alter the direction of a regime? In Egypt’s “stalled” transition, criticism has been levied that transitional justice mechanisms having been adopted too quickly are being manipulated by state elites to hinder real reform. In Bahrain, the monarchy has initiated some attempts at transitional justice but in the absence of a national consensus these efforts remain mired in controversy.
- International efforts to support transitional justice efforts are often viewed as being deeply politicized, and a manifestation of international interests in local political developments. Yet national efforts are often weak on their own and external support may be necessary for moving transitional justice mechanisms forward. How are international organizations engaging with current transitional justice practices in the Middle East? What role is being played by international actors in the formation of transitional justice mechanisms across the region, and how are these being perceived?
Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Social Currents in the Maghreb.”
Article by Zahra Babar, Assistant Director of Research at CIRS