A new vision of monitoring,
to relaunch the fight
One of the greatest advances in the fight against impunity for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law in modern times has undoubtedly been the establishment of the principle of accountability as a central pillar of the architecture of international justice. At no point in human history has the principle of accountability for serious human rights violations fulfilled such a fundamental role in shaping national attitudes on human rights until the present moment.
We can all bring to mind stories of violence and abuse that have eluded justice and accountability and consequently failed to deliver a just resolution for victims. For victims and their families, impunity creates nothing but additional pain and suffering. Recently, at a conference in Luxembourg (26 and 27 March 2019), victims of sexual violence from 18 countries met to talk about the feelings that unite them, with a number of common themes emerging: the sense of shame, the immense frustration at the lack of justice, and the need for recognition and redress.
After all, we can all agree that acknowledgement and recognition in the aftermath of gross violations of human rights, wherever they may occur, represent intrinsic human values that may help victims of violations to at least begin to turn the page. So, what is recognition? When Iraqi Yazidi Islamic State survivor and activist Nadia Murad received Parliament's Sakharov Prize in 2016, she said, “This award restores my soul, my faith in humanity and my honour.” Recognition of violations of human rights by the international community and state authorities is indeed a first but significant step towards justice.
Yet, even in the wake of the progress that has been made to ensure that accountability remains a driving force behind international justice efforts, we are reminded on a daily basis of the vast number of human rights violations that go unpunished and unacknowledged. The outright lack of accountability following the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul, and that of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in Cairo, remind us that the scourge of impunity for serious human rights abuses remains a persistent issue of our time. In the same vein, the initiative of the Egyptian government to amend its constitution 2 has clear potential to destabilise the country further. Moreover, the possibility of restoring fair rights for Egyptians and addressing accountability becomes increasingly unlikely with the extension of executive control over the judiciary and the enshrining of the concept of military trials for civilians in the constitution. While recognising the value of justice and accountability mechanisms, we must at the same time remain vigilant towards the cynical manipulation of such processes by states seeking to clamp down on fundamental rights.
If we are to continue to tackle impunity for serious international human rights violations, it is not only essential that we continue to strongly support the mechanisms designed to ensure accountability but also that we use this moment as an occasion to take stock of and promote the positive contributions that accountability can deliver on a societal level. Accountability is the soil in which peace can take root. We would do well to remember that the European Union itself is above all else a peace project on an international scale founded on core values of rule of law, democracy and human rights. Were it not for the ability to find common ground beyond the ideological, cultural and religious divides that led to the most devastating destruction in history, can we say with absolute certainty that those core values would still form the backbone of our civilisation?
Accountability can sow the seeds of reconciliation. For all of its failings, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown the international community that a polarised society can move towards reconciliation when compromise is understood as a virtue rather than as a weakness. The experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also taught us key lessons about how the social, cultural and religious particularities of any one society will have important impacts on the ways in which accountability is achieved. In the same spirit of compromise, we must avoid a “one size fits all” model whilst recognising the benefits of learning from examples where accountability has, if only partially, contributed to reconciliation.
Accountability encourages the branches of reformed and strengthened institutions to grow and become strong so that such serious human rights violations never happen again. After all, it is in those societies where such institutions are weakest that generally exist the largest deficits of accountability. Even in our own societies in Europe we are not perfect and major challenges 3 facing the rule of law and independent institutions have arisen in recent times. Reflecting years later on the punishment of the orchestrator of a car-bomb attack that led to him losing an arm, former South African Judge Albie Sachs remarked how it was “more important to live in a country that has rule of law than send one rascal to jail.” If we are to build on and strengthen our institutions at home and abroad, we would do well to adopt guiding principles that reflect a similar respect for rule of law.
Today, we have at our disposal numerous national, regional and international mechanisms to combat impunity and ensure accountability for serious human rights violations across the globe. The impact of the ad hoc international tribunals and the International Criminal Court in pursuing accountability for serious human rights violations has demonstrated how domestic courts can be galvanised and strengthened during the process. It is essential then, that we continue to not only support but also develop further integration of domestic, regional and international accountability mechanisms. Yet, as the wheels of justice tend to move slowly when it comes to such serious crimes, perhaps the greatest contribution of international justice in promoting rule of law has been to create awareness of international crimes that are a stain on the conscience of humanity and by such lead increasingly to their prevention. The need uto have even more effective and permanent monitoring and observation tools that can allow for a more complete surveillance of the dynamics in progress is therefore urgent. In conclusion, while many milestones have thus far been achieved in the name of accountability for serious violations of international human rights, this is not a time to rest on our laurels and sit back and admire our achievements. We need a renewed sense of vigour and unity to guide our fight against impunity in these worrying times for humanity. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If we are to continue to move towards justice, accountability must be our guiding light.
Pier Antonio Panzeri