'Accountability for human rights atrocities, starts with addressing legacy of the past'

Rita French visiting Memory House in Banjul, an exhibition centre created by grassroots organisations and individuals engaged in the transitional justice process in Gambia. (Credit: UK Mission in Geneva)

The quest for accountability for gross human rights violations and abuses including torture, rape and killings, are among the most complex and sensitive issues facing conflict-affected societies. Tragically, truth, justice and accountability takes years, often decades, to achieve. But it is only through addressing the legacy of past atrocities and ending impunity that communities can gain closure and truly move forward.

Every day we are confronted by new stories of devastating violations and abuses committed by Russia in Ukraine – from Bucha to Mariupol to Kremenchuk. But Ukraine, with support from the international community, is not waiting to pursue accountability efforts. The first war crimes trial has already taken place in the country. The International Criminal Court recently sent their largest-ever investigation team to a conflict zone. And in May, the UK, US and EU created the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group to support Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office on investigations and ensure justice takes its course. In March, the UN Human Rights Council established a commission of inquiry to investigate and report on the violations being committed.

However, such efforts inevitably take time. For victims and survivors, in Ukraine and around the world, both past and present, accountability is not a linear process – it can last decades and requires courage from both society and political leaders.

During my recent trip to West Africa, I saw many examples of such courage. The issue of accountability was a key focus of my discussions with civil society, the media and inside government.

In Liberia, there remain unresolved questions of accountability for widespread past atrocities committed during the first (1989-1997) and second (1999 – 2003) civil wars. It was a pleasure to meet human rights lawyer and activist, Hassan Bility, who has dedicated his life to securing justice for victims and survivors in Liberia. Hassan’s work has enabled the investigation and arrest of Liberian war criminals throughout Europe and the US including former commanders of the ULIMO rebel group. Hassan undertakes his work with tremendous personal risk but he hopes one day to see the creation of an international tribunal for Liberia. Yet this remains an open question for the country.

In neighbouring Sierra Leone, international tribunals have been set up with great success. The UN Special Court for Sierra Leone was established in August 2000 to prosecute persons who bore the greatest responsibility for serious human rights violations since 30 November 2006.  From 2014, this was replaced by the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone also had a truth and reconciliation commission, in addition to the Special Court. The country has made tremendous strides forward in promoting and protecting human rights including the recent abolition of the death penalty.

Further to the west in The Gambia, I returned to the country following my previous visit in August 2019. Then, the country was gripped by powerful and painful testimonies during the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) hearings. Two years later, I had the honour of meeting President Adama Barrow to discuss progress in implementing the TRCC recommendations and I commend the President for recently accepting all recommendations of the Commission.  While such decisions can be politically challenging, they are crucial for healing, justice and confidence in the country as it moves forward.

One similar feature in all three countries is the power of stories and perspectives from the victims and survivors of past atrocities. I visited Memory House on the outskirts of Banjul, a city in The Gambia. Their exhibition, The Duty to Remember, provides a platform to victims and survivors to tell their story – a poignant reminder of ensuring survivors remain at the centre of any approach to accountability.

As West Africa demonstrates, there are different approaches when it comes to pursuing accountability. Transitional justice mechanisms range from non-judicial processes, such as truth and reconciliation commissions and apologies, through to judicial ones, such as hybrid and international tribunals.

As I write this in Geneva, the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council has just come to a close. It is worth remembering that the Council has had many achievements in this space, be it the creation of independent accountability mechanisms on Myanmar and Syria, or indeed the establishment of a Fact Finding Mission led directly by the Government of Libya. The work of the Human Rights Council can complement and assist other national and international accountability efforts.

The quest for accountability doesn’t just require time, but resources too – particularly if a transitional mechanism or tribunal is established.  Kicking the issue into the long grass is not the answer. I have seen how failure to address past atrocities seeps into the present day, often undermining confidence in the justice system and respect for the rule of law. This hinders the ability of a country to move forward. Without justice, what is to deter or stop the next atrocity? Leaving past atrocities unaddressed is not the answer. Victims and survivors deserve justice. Families deserve closure. And communities need to heal.

Accountability is something I will continue to call for and champion both in Geneva and around the world. We owe this to all victims and survivors.