Today I interviewed Anna Myriam Roccatello, the Deputy Executive Director and Director of Programs of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), based in New York. I have known her for many years, and her story has inspired me since I was a child. Her engagement in spreading the discipline of Transitional Justice worldwide testifies that the values Students for Humanity supports can be effectively put into practice.
With over 25 years of international experience in rule of law, human rights and transitional justice, she joined ICTJ in 2013 after working for the United Nations for over 15 years. Prior to joining ICTJ, she worked at the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations for seven years, where she gained international experience in criminal prosecution, mutual legal assistance, judicial reforms and strengthening judicial institutions. She served in Kosovo in the UNMIK Department of Justice, and in Afghanistan as part of a capacity building program for judicial personnel. She subsequently served as a Senior Policy Officer at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons focusing on States Parties’ compliance to, and accountability for, their international obligations, and later as the Senior Legal Adviser of the United Nations Office for West Africa, overseeing the operations of the Nigeria-Cameroon Mixed Commission.
What is transitional justice?
“Transitional Justice (TJ) is a discipline that emerged from various attempts of countries that struggled to recover from massive abuses of human rights, in order to address and to respond to the consequences of such violations. The main objective is to re-build society and recognize the rights and dignity of individuals that have suffered serious violations. TJ is a set of judicial and non-judicial measures implemented to support the political transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. It is driven by a society’s desire to rebuild social trust, repair a fractured justice system and build a democratic system of governance.”
What are the main principles on which TJ is based?
“Firstly, the legal principles are based on international human rights and the correspondent obligation of states to provide justice for the victims of violations. I just want to stress that gross violations of human rights include international crimes such as genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression but also violations that are provided for by international conventions of universal applicability. Violations of human rights trigger an obligation upon the state in which they have been committed to provide justice for the victims, who therefore have the right to receive protection.
"TJ is not only based on legal principles but also on other principles that have an institutional, social and cultural base: most importantly, the principle that the response to violations must be victim-centered. The response must meet and satisfy the victim’s needs and expectations.
"Another principle is that victims, through the different mechanisms of TJ, regain their dignity: violations can only be perpetrated in an environment in which there is a politically driven misperception that certain groups and individuals are ‘less’, and this betrayal of human dignity justifies the most heinous acts.
"TJ is also based on the principle that justice is an omni-comprehensive concept that includes the right to truth, a truth that is valuable not only to the victims of violations but also to society as a whole. Society needs to be aware of the fact that unspeakable acts have been committed within their community.
"Another principle is reparation: there cannot be justice without reparation.
"Lastly, one of the main pillars of TJ is the principle of non-recurrence, meaning that the ultimate goal of transitional justice is to ensure that what happened in a certain context will never happen again.”
Is there someone who inspired you?
“When I joined ICTJ I started working with a multidisciplinary team that included anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. I was heavily inspired by their holistic understanding of what it takes for a society to overcome devastating events such as a repressive regime or war crimes, and of what it takes for victims to recover and transform into peaceful agents of change, political agents for peace and justice. That was certainly a big source of inspiration that changed my understanding of what is needed to contribute to a long-term transformation.
"In this environment I had the privilege to work with Orofessor Juan Mendez and Professor Pablo de Greiff, that have been mentors, colleagues, and dear friends.
"However, the more I work in this context the more I draw inspiration from victims and activists: their resilience and relentless fight for justice leaves me speechless, and the more they mature in their activism and struggle, the more they stress that their fight is a fight for humanity. They may have started as victims of a violation, but ultimately, they are fighting for justice and peace for all, because what happened to them might happen to any of us. Their continuous effort to never leave truth unspoken while suffering themselves from what they have experienced, is an incredible source of inspiration. As Professor Pablo de Greiff always says: if the victims never cease to pursue justice, neither can we”.
Talking about today: do you think TJ has a role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
“Ukraine is a technically complicated scenario because it is an international conflict. TJ as a discipline has been tested primarily in domestic processes: when one country is directly responsible for certain violations or is directly responsible for failing to protect civilians from attacks or other violations perpetrated by armed groups the frame is neater, this is the scenario for which TJ was born. An international scenario is complicated because there is a multiplicity of responsible parties, there is a clear aggressor under international law, however there is a conflict that created many victims on both sides. Since this is a war against civilians, also the state of Ukraine has responsibilities.
"Another level of complication is that the international community has not learned much in 20 years of the existence of TJ: it is evident that mere criminal prosecution of these type of violations is not sufficient to ensure transformation in society. Other remedies are needed to change society through the acknowledgment that something that should have never happened has happened. It is very difficult to imagine a process of transformation of that kind that involves Russia in the current political situation. Therefore, the focus of the international community and Ukraine itself on prosecuting crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine is counterproductive and narrow-minded. A country that is still at war is not sufficiently independent and neutral to offer fair trails to individuals that have invaded their territory: it is not the right time for these kinds of initiatives. In addition, this single-minded approach neglects the many other needs that Ukraine has and may compromise the country’s ability to achieve other objectives. The country will be devastated by war and immensely traumatized: different types of assistance are required including mental health and psycho-social assistance. To prepare Ukraine for a post conflict scenario the focus must be on victims and not on perpetrators. In TJ the criminal prosecution targets “the most responsible”, because there is no point in prosecuting the single soldier. The prosecution has to target those who enabled a war that caused human suffering. In this situation it is very unlikely that the most responsible will be prosecuted, especially in Ukraine. Therefore, victims are the center of the process of reconstruction, the focus must be on social and human needs, otherwise Ukraine will find itself in a midst of political volatility in a post-conflict scenario.”
What is the role of youth in TJ processes?
“TJ is a set of measures and solutions to change a society for the better in a context in which the basic rules on interaction must be re-established among citizens and between citizens and the state. Trust must be re-gained between individuals and towards the authorities that have the responsibility to govern peacefully and without discrimination. Even if TJ is known as a remedy, the success of TJ processes is measured by the future outcome of TJ process in a specific context. Youth is the future, often on the receiving end of violations, because both in conflicts and authoritarian regimes they can be recruited in the armed struggle. Also, youth is a significant proportion of society, therefore political forces tend to draw from their number and strength to pursue their political goal.
"At the same time, youth is often deprived of a recognized role in political discussions. Since TJ must be as inclusive as possible to be true to its principles, we consider youth to be one the most important actors for a positive change. Youth is always a victim, directly or indirectly: if there is a problem of poverty, unemployment, or exclusion it often impacts youth. Youth has a stake in achieving a different society which is rights-based, in which they can hope to have a better governance, and an equal repartition of resources.”