Perhaps surprisingly given that fact that issues of transitional justice have been central to UN peacebuilding doctrine since 2004’s Rule of Law and Transitional Justice Report (some might go as far as to say it was mainstreamed in 1997’s later updated set of principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity) , it is only in the last few weeks that the Human Rights Council adopted a long-mooted resolution to appoint, for a period of three years, a new Special Rapporteur on promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence of serious crimes and gross violations of human rights. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate will include gathering relevant information on national situations, practices, and experiences, as well as normative frameworks, related to transitional justice mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur will be tasked with providing technical assistance upon request, exchanging and promoting good practices, and recommending strategies to address grave human rights abuses and serious crimes. The resolution received wide support, as it was co-sponsored by more than 75 countries. The Council requested the Special Rapporteur report annually to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. The move has been warmly welcomed by the INGO community such as the Center for Justice and International Law and the International Center for Transitional Justice .
The key challenge now will be to identify a strong candidate for the position, which will carry significant challenges given the vast and rapidly developing field of transitional justice. It will in many ways be a crucial appointment because it will signal where the field might direct its attention in years to come. In the past decade, transitional justice has sprung from its origins in the justice or amnesty debates of the early 1990s and the truth v justice debates of the late 1990s to incorporate situations in settled democracies and enduring conflicts that are far removed from anything resembling a transition and is asked to deliver a laundry list of increasingly utopian outcomes that have historically proven far beyond the capabilities of long-term stable governments in developing states. Transitional justice practitioners are nowadays encouraged to adopt local and global perspectives, criminal and restorative approaches, victim- and perpetrator-centred perspectives , to tackle socio-economic crimes as well as and civil and political crimes. For example, the resolution calls for survivor-centered approaches and the incorporation of gender-sensitive perspectives. One of the key tasks of the new appointees may be to restore a sense of cohesion to the area. One of the questions he or she must grapple with is whether is better to have narrow programmes of truth, justice, reparation, and non-recurrence or whether it is better to be all things to all men (what Paul Gready calls the “do more, do everything approach.” The unwieldy job description and the early examples of special pleading in the resolution are not encouraging. The resolution demands a “comprehensive approach incorporating the full range of judicial and non-judicial measures, including, among others, individual prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, vetting of public employees and officials, or an appropriately conceived combination thereof, in order to, inter alia, ensure accountability, serve justice, provide remedies to victims, promote healing and reconciliation, establish independent oversight of the security system and restore confidence in the institutions of the State and promote the rule of law in accordance with international human rights law.” This is something no post-authoritarian or post-war state has ever succeeded in doing, owing to the fact that states are too weak, divided and have too many other priorities to deliver on such utopian programmes. The resolution’s demand that “when designing and implementing strategies, policies and measures to address gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, the specific context of each situation must be taken into account with a view to preventing the recurrence of crises and future violations of human rights, to ensure social cohesion, nation-building, ownership and inclusiveness at the national and local levels and to promote reconciliation” is inherently contradictory – any assessment of specific contexts will make apparent the impossibility of any set of temporary mechanisms to prevent recurrence, ensure social cohesion etc. One of the key tests of the rapporteur may be to rein in some of the wilder expectations of programmes. In recommending best practice and strategies to address grave human rights abuses and serious crimes as the mandate demands, it is to be hoped that realistic estimations of potential outputs in limiting condition will replace the wishful thinking that has characterised the field and, it seems, the resolution.