Workshop on Documenting Atrocity Crimes in Africa: Amplifying Civil Society Organization Capacity to Work in Transitional Justice Processes in Africa

January 24th, 2023

Experiences in Africa and around the world have indicated that the end of conflict does not automatically lead to sustainable peace and transition to democratic rule with rule of law and respect for human rights. They proved rather that transitional justice (TJ) is indispensable to achieve this end. Indeed there is a need to initiate TJ processes to recognize victims of atrocity crimes and secure accountability for those crimes. In fact this has proved to secure civic trust and national reconciliation and at least promises democratic rule in Africa. It must be noted that transitional TJ processes would not see success without the initiatives of Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs)) ground preparatory work of fact finding and documentation. Although their preparatory work has proved success of many TJs in securing accountability in Africa, it would be misleading to say this work is a smooth road.

I had an opportunity to attend the workshop on Documenting Atrocity Crimes in Africa hosted by TrustAfrica on the 25 September 2015 in Dakar Senegal. In this workshop Civil Society Organizations operating in Africa engaging in fact-finding and documentation of atrocity crimes were sharing their experiences from which they identified their common challenges, strengths and discovered their needs and possible solutions to their challenges. 

The experiences shared were intensely informative of the importance of victim’s participation in fact-finding and documentary processes which usually precede the TJ processes in Africa.  Having learned from the experiences shared, victims participation in this process is rehabilitative.  The CSOs’ representatives who participated therein indicated that when telling their stories during the documentation process, victims of atrocity crimes have healed emotionally. Moreover, involvement of victims in this process has empowered them to come forth to demand justice and secure accountability of perpetrators who are usually powerful figures. In addition, this workshop has revealed that involvement of atrocity crimes victims in this process helps in identifying the victims with accuracy for reparations and redress emanating from subsequent TJ processes. It is not only the accuracy in identification of victims that this process breeds but also accuracy of the factual stories as it involves all the parties who have personal account of what has happened. Of equal importance again is the fact that involvement of victims in documentation and the fact-finding process identifies the potential witnesses and or participants for succeeding TJ processes. It also helps in identifying and averting the actual and potential material and security risks that might hinder participation of witnesses in TJ processes and weaken their effectiveness, consequently blurring the prospects of national reconciliation and democratic rule. More interesting is that the experiences of these African CSOs showed that participation of the atrocity crimes victims can direct the initiation of Victim oriented TJ as their involvement in this process informs of their perception of justice. Remembering that one of the aims of ATJPF is to promote national and local ownership of TJ processes, inclusiveness, and primacy of victim centered justice, these experiences cumulatively indicate that the fact-finding and documentation process which intensively involve victims is an essential for the effective implementation of the Proposed African Transitional Justice Policy Framework. (ATTJPF)

However, learning from these experiences it would be misleading to state that documentation and fact finding by at least CSO operating in Africa is a plane process. The workshop revealed rather that these CSOs are faced with huge legal and practical challenges which minimize their effectiveness. As shown at the workshop, there is generally lack of awareness of the role and importance of the role played by the CSOs in fact finding and documentation of atrocity crimes. This usually causes practical challenges to the work of the CSOs in this regard. Some of the challenges shared include, the reluctance to cooperate with the CSO documentation by the state Criminal Investigation Agents, Doctors and the Courts which do not give weight to their documentation in prosecutions. Moreover, non-domestication of international instruments by the member states usually undermines the worth of the documentation process as the domestic judicial officers are usually hesitant to apply these instruments (Judicial constraint propelled by the doctrine of separation powers). Moreover, it appeared that the documentation process is also commonly challenged by the lack of political will to implement the outcomes of the TJ processes on the part of African states. This takes away victims’ trust on TJ processes hence dissuades them from partaking in documentation. The strict application of procedural laws is also a challenge to this process especially because they do not mandate CSOs to engage in investigations, which is solely the legal mandate of the state Criminal investigation Agencies.  

In addition to these, there appears to be a common security risk on the part of the CSOs which negatively affects their capability to effectively carry out this task. They are also challenged by the material and physical security of victims coupled with lack of expertise and professionalism to document sensitive matters such as sexual violence against the victims.

Learning from this workshop, there is a need to raise awareness on the work and or importance of the documentation processes by CSOs. This shall eliminate the negative attitude that pose practical challenges to documentation process and shall solicit support of this work instead. Moreover, there is a need for strengthened capacity building of the CSOs engaging in this work. This should be in a form of technical and financial support of these works. It would also be highly important if the donors channel their funds towards the full support of this work and the stakeholders with technical expertise such as lawyers, psychotherapists and others can train or assist in any possible manner to build capacity of these CSOs to effect victim participatory fact finding and documentation of atrocity crimes. There is a need for the states to observe their international obligations and domesticate the international treaties. 

Moreover, this workshop informed that there is a need for strong and well-capacitated CSOs engaging in documentation of Atrocity crimes. There is therefore a need to address the challenges faced by CSOs working in this area in order to secure accountability of international crimes and effecting redress and just reparations. Continuous workshops of this nature are needed in order to identify the emerging challenges and opportunities of CSO so the work of CSOs working in this area can be amplified. 

Masekara koankoetlaMasekara Sekoankoetla interned at TrustAfrica from July – September 2015. She is from Lesotho and is currently pursuing her Master of Laws in Human Rights and Democratization in Africa with the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Masekara holds a Bachelor of Laws Degree (LLB) obtained from the National University of Lesotho in 2013. She is also an advocate of the High Court of Lesotho, admitted to the bar in February 2014

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