UN High Commissioner for Human Rights addresses hopes for the Fight Against Impunity during Emilio Mignone Lecture


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was the keynote speaker at the 8th Annual Emilio Mignone Lecture on Transitional Justice. The event hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice of New York University’s School of Law and the International Center for Transitional Justice, placed the Commissioner in conversation with renowned international journalist, Indira Lakshmanan, to discuss the international community’s hopes for the fight against impunity.

IMGP0465The lecture took place at the Ford Foundation on Tuesday December 8th, 2015 and brought together more than 150 leading human rights activists, policy makers, academics, and practitioners who explored issues at the forefront of the debate on transitional justice.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Tolbert, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, highlighted the fight against impunity as one that has always been at the heart of transitional justice and encouraged the attendees to continue to foreground efforts that counter impunity and bring forth justice. Working together with civil society groups and empowering them to take up this fight is one way to propel the fight against impunity, he asserted.

Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Margaret Satterthwaite underlined the many ways in which CHRGJ is also working on this issue and explained how the Center aims to train a new generation of transitional justice scholars and practitioners to address these complex issues.

Responding to critical questions from Ms. Lakshmanan on the status of transitional justice, the UN High Commissioner expressed his optimism for forthcoming change, noting that “while the world has not changed as fast as we had hoped for, we know that things will change.” Accordingly, “it’s just a matter of having a few things change in your favor that can create a momentum for more profound and sweeping change”. After all he argued, “the law is well rooted in human experience in the sense that there is almost no new human experience. Every human experience is a permutation of a previous human experience that the law already captures. The challenge is therefore manageable. There are no better propositions as to how we deal with impunity.”

IMGP0479According to the High Commissioner, the greatest despair in situations of extreme conflict lies in addressing the loss of the victims. To this end, he noted that regardless of where conflicts take place, in Syria or elsewhere, there is always a feeling of insufficiency on behalf of transitional justice advocates. This feeling of inadequacy is prominent as no activity, event, or speech we, as an international community, put forth can ever deliver what victims truly need. Because we cannot bring back the lives of those lost, our actions may seem inconsequential. He added, “during one interview, I almost came apart, because it almost felt like fraud, it is so far from sufficient what we are doing as an international community.”

Nonetheless, once the peace process finally comes together in Syria, the High Commissioner underscored the need for transitional justice arrangements to lead the people of Syria to take account of their past. Eventually Syrians, like other groups before them who endured similar fates, should be encouraged to delve into the underlying causes that led to this brutal conflict so as to find the elements that can bring people together in an affirmative peace. Accordingly he added, “Addressing the past cannot be an afterthought”.

With regards to the role the international community is playing in conflict prevention and eventually limiting the need for transitional justice, the High Commissioner gave a pessimistic outlook as he pointed to the lack of adequate international funding for conflict prevention, and in specific for avoiding human rights violations.

The High Commissioner also fielded questions from the audience addressing the relative importance of truth commissions and even welcomed the idea of an Arab Court of Justice to manage the aftermath of the Syrian conflict. The lecture concluded as he encouraged the audience to continue the fight against impunity and to steer the wheel of transitional justice toward advancing human rights.

You can watch the event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLNPMIWi688