Regional Cooperation and Transitional Justice – Remarks

Expert workshop on transitional justice

 ‘Building Blocks for Regional Cooperation on Transitional Justice’

 6-7 October 2021 (virtual event)


Good morning everyone and many thanks for inviting me to this interesting event.

First of all, I would like to warmly thank Ambassador Axel Kennes, Director Multilateral Affairs of the Belgian Ministry of Affairs for the excellent cooperation in the preparation of this event. It is always a great pleasure to team up with our Member States to further the advance our common agenda.

I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to Professor Parmentier, of the University of Leuven, and Doctor Arnould, of the Egmont – Royal Institute, for the very good collaboration on this.

At the outset, I would also like to extend my warm greetings to AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye.

The European Union is a keen host the next (the 6th) EU-Africa Summit in Brussels, as soon as conditions related to the pandemic allow, possibly in early 2022. Our common objective is to agree on the priorities for a new wide-ranging and more strategic partnership between the two continents. We want to reinforce our solid partnership on common interests and shared values.

Peace, security and governance are and should undoubtedly remain a central pillar of our mutual engagement. The rule of law and the promotion of the respect for human rights are shared priorities and key pillars upon which our societies should rest.

Our cooperation on Human rights is demonstrated by our longstanding EU – AU dialogue on Human rights, and that commitment is followed by concrete actions.

During the last two rounds of the EU – AU Human Rights Dialogue, we have been discussing together how our respective organisations can deepen the relationship on transitional justice as part of wider EU – AU partnership. It is therefore my great pleasure that the event is taking place today, ahead of the next round of our dialogue later this year.

I am impressed by the presence of so many distinguished experts in this field, from civil society organisations and the academic world. Your views and expertise will offer us new perspectives and I look forward to your ideas how we can take this agenda forward.

The European Union is guided by our foundational values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They are an essential part of our European identity. The European Union itself was born in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, as an ambition to foster sustainable peace on the European continent.

In essence, transitional justice can be regarded as finding a way to deal with the past in a meaningful way in order to have more stable, prosperous future without conflicts. Our EU Member States themselves have also embarked on journeys how they can best deal with the past.

The European experience illustrate that different approaches can be taken, some have chosen to focus more on criminal justice whereas others have chosen other pathways to achieve societal reconciliation. A good example is Northern Ireland, with which I am very familiar.

The EU seeks to prevent violations and abuses of human rights throughout the world and, where these occur, to ensure that victims have access to justice and redress and that those responsible are held to account. The EU is guided in its endeavours by international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Guided by these principles, transitional justice has therefore become a key priority for the EU when engaging in situations of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law.

Since 2015, we have equipped ourselves with an EU Policy Framework on support to transitional justice. This complements other EU policy positions, such as the Council Decision on the ICC and the EU Guidelines on International Humanitarian Law.

The EU was the first regional organisation that adopted a dedicated policy document at the political level on Transitional Justice.

Since then, the African Union has also adopted its policy document and I would like to congratulate Ambassador Bankole and the AU for this landmark achievement.

Our policy outlines the five overarching objectives to which EU support to transitional justice is contributing:

  • First, ending impunity: the fight against impunity represents a critical element to return to the path of peaceful dialogue, social reconciliation, peaceful coexistence, and inclusive and sustainable development
  • Second, providing recognition and redress to victims: we take a victim-centred approach to transitional justice, putting victims and survivors at the heart of our interventions. Victims need to be involved early on in transitional justice process. A key challenge here is to be able to concretely identify what are the needs and aspirations of victims, and recognize that they can be conflicting at times. I am pleased to see that one of the panel will focus on this more concretely.
  • Third, fostering trust: trust between the state and citizens will need to be restored but equally important, trust amongst citizens and within communities will need to be repaired too.
  • Fourth, strengthening the rule of law: transitional justice is part of wider rebuilding of the rule of law culture, as part of state and peace building
  • Fifth, contributing to reconciliation: in the aftermath of large scale atrocities, reconciliation cannot be achieved overnight. It is a continuous and ongoing process.

The European Union, underlines the importance of supporting a context specific approach to transitional justice processes and the need to ensure that the design and implementation of such processes are locally and nationally owned, are inclusive and that they respect states’ obligations under international law. This has been reaffirmed in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020 – 2024.

Based on our experience and engagement, I would like to offer some reflections and I look forward to your reflections and recommendations on the matter.

Transitional justice is essential to break the cycle of violence. Research clearly indicates that the current, ongoing conflicts are almost all a relapse into conflict situations of the past that were not effectively addressed. When a society does not deal with its past in a meaningful manner, its future remains uncertain and sustainable development and security can rarely be achieved, if at all. I look forward to the insights of the first panel on this matter.

Transitional justice is complex, challenging and almost always imperfect. The needs for justice and redress are often overwhelming, even where societies are well-developed. Transitional justice inherently takes places in situations where gross human rights violations took place, and where state institutions may be weak and national capacity limited. The tasks can be daunting. But this should not stop us from engaging but rather look for concrete entry points where we can engage, but also accept the road ahead will be bumpy.

Transitional justice process are never perfectly linear:  an initial window of opportunity may rapidly close over time. Progress in setting up a truth commission can for example lead to setbacks when insufficient budget is allocated. Hard choices have to be made in terms of prioritisation and sequencing and I am sure the second panel will help us unpacking these dynamics.

How are we now taking this agenda forward in concrete terms?

We have been raising transitional justice in our various political and human rights dialogues in recent years in several African countries, from The Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic to South Sudan and several others.

A very good example is Colombia, where I have also been severing as the EU’s Special Envoy for the Peace Process. The Colombian Peace Agreement will soon be 5 years old, and the transitional justice system, which was established and which is supported by the EU, is a success, and can serve as a good model.

We have also been supporting ongoing transitional justice processes through our assistance programmes in the field of rule of law and justice. As you may know, the European Union is currently finalising the programming of future cooperation with third countries, including on the African continent, for the next years. It is therefore to difficult to already share more concrete details but transitional justice has emerged as a priority in certain countries and will be supported.

One of the important innovations in the last year was the creation of an EU Facility on Justice in Conflict and Transition, financed by the European Commission. This new tool has enabled us to provide high-level technical assistance to our EU Delegations and partners on the ground. The experts can be rapidly mobilised in a flexible manner and I would like to thank you, Madam Moderator and your colleagues, for all the excellent work you have been undertaking in this regard.

As I said in the beginning, I congratulate the African Union for having adopted its detailed transitional justice policy document. I look forward to hear more from you, Ambassador Bankole.

I would like to acknowledge that AU’s policy offers a lot of common ground for us to deepen our partnership on this, also in providing concrete assistance. For example, both policies do emphasise the importance of integrating a gender dimension in transitional processes.

I would also like to share that your policy, which is more recent than ours, rightfully puts more emphasis on certain issues such as economic, social and cultural rights and displacement, all very important notions.

Many thanks for your attention and happy to give back the floor to you, Madam Moderator.