Civil society actors from around Africa, especially countries emerging from violent conflicts and gross human rights violations gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 30-31 2010 to share their experiences on advocating justice and reconciliation in their countries. This was at a workshop on 'Advocating Justice: Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Africa' organised by the African Transitional Justice Research Network (ATJRN) at Twickenham Guest House, Johannesburg, South Africa. The workshop drew the participation of over 20 different civil society representatives from locally-based organisations and groups advocating implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in different African countries. Stephen Oola, Peace Direct Uganda Local Correspondent, attended this workshop and here are the highlights. Transitional justice is often defined to include a range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to mitigate ongoing conflicts and to address a legacy of large scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, promote justice and achieve peace and reconciliation.

According to Stephen, “the quintessence of transitional justice is the balancing of the immediate need to secure peace with longer term imperatives of establishing the rule of law, good governance and preventing future conflicts.” It includes short, medium and long-term local, regional, and international programmes that seek cessation of hostilities or repressive rule; address the root causes of violent conflicts, promote sustainable peace, reconciliation and justice; and nurture the rule of law in the affected societies. If comprehensively implemented and fully embraced by the population, transitional justice mechanisms like institutional reforms, prosecutions of heinous crimes, truth seeking and acknowledgement for past abuses, reparations to victims, memorialisation or memorials and traditional rituals for reconciliations have potential to achieve closure to past abuses, catharsis healing and kick-start the long process needed for local grassroots, inter-communal reconciliation and nation building.

According to ATJRN, the objective of the workshop was to bring together practitioners and scholars in order to share experiences and evaluate African civil society’s engagement with transitional justice (TJ) on the continent. It was intended to encourage individuals and organisations working on issues of peace, justice and reconciliation in Africa to document their experiences and advocacy efforts relating to influencing governments’ TJ policies before, during and after transition. Participants came from Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia and the host country - South Africa. The organisations represented were Refugee Law Project (RLP) and FIDA from Uganda; Fambul Tok International from Sierra Leone; Centre for Democratic Governance from Liberia; National Victims Network and International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) from Kenya; Penal Reform International from Rwanda; Congolese Coalition for Transitional Justice from DRC; Lawyers for Human Rights from Zimbabwe; and Khulumani Support Group, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) from South Africa.

The two-day discussions explored the important roles civil society has played in catalysing development of transitional justice discourses in their very complex and challenging contexts. Civil Society groups have innovated pro-active and sometimes reactive advocacy strategies to engage the victims of conflicts, their populations and governments to implement credible, appropriate and comprehensive mechanisms to deal with the legacies of large scale past human rights abuses. These strategies include civil society leading the process of designing and drafting transitional justice laws and policy frameworks, mobilising victims, consultations with key stakeholders and litigations among others. The formation of coalitions and coordinated civil society advocacy was identified as crucial for success but a lot of challenges were identified in their sustainability and staying the course. Funding politics and lack of capacity was repeatedly raised by the participants as an inhibiting factor. Many civil society organisations also work in very repressive environments, making it extremely difficult to engage with governments that are often non-responsive and less interested in the plight of victims.

It was humbling enough but also very inspiring to listen to stories of enormous successes accorded by some of the local civil society organisations under extremely difficult circumstances. The realisation of sustainable peace on the African continent largely depends on the achievement of equal dispensation of justice and access to opportunities. Civil societies are key agents in this pursuit but they still face a lot of challenges in their contexts. There is need for both state and non-state actors to engage with civil society members and affected populations to facilitate implementation of appropriate transitional justice mechanisms relevant to each context. The African Union (AU) was noted to be increasingly taking its place in the fight for peace, justice and reconciliation on the continent and civil society was called upon to engage with the AU to adopt a comprehensive transitional justice policy framework; allowing for engagement with civil society and galvanising verifiable political will and commitment to deal with large scale human rights abuses.

The ATJRN seeks to promote and encourage transitional justice research in Africa through the development of research capacity, the building of transitional justice content knowledge, and the creation of spaces for practitioners and researchers in Africa to share experiences, expertise and lessons learned. Established in 2004 by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (South Africa), Refugee Law Project (Uganda), Campaign for Good Governance (Sierra Leone) and the Centre for Democratic Development (Ghana), ATJRN strives to ensure that the transitional justice agenda in Africa is locally informed and owned.