The working group on transitional justice convened at the Legatum Institute for its 2012 Future of Iran workshop.
Participants discussed transitional justice, and the question of how Iranians might, in the future, seek justice for crimes and human rights violations being committed in the present. Outside reflections were provided by experts from South Africa and Morocco.
Transitional justice remains a relatively new concept in political and judicial discourse. Although international support for human rights’ trials can be traced back to the Nuremburg trials, it was not until the 1990s, following the Chilean and especially South African experiences of transition, that the idea gained broader acceptance.
Since then, the pursuit of justice for victims of oppression has come to be considered a fundamental element of successful political transitions. In Iran, a number of human rights groups have begun to document human rights abuses of the Islamic regime, in order to be better prepared if an opportunity for a national reconciliation process should come in the future. Among these are the Human Rights Centre in Iran, as well as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, both of which are based abroad but dedicated to documenting abuse.
|“I think that most of the debate about transitional justice in a country like Iran should be boiled down to one question: how to turn past wrongs into future human rights?” |
— Ramin Jahanbegloo, University of Toronto
Documentation: “Transitional Justice Before the Transition”
Documentation, if it is to be effective, aims to write a narrative account of rights abuse, including accounts of both victims and perpetrators.
- For the victims, it recognizes their suffering, provides a catalyst for emotional healing, and assures them their experience will not be forgotten.
- Perpetrators’ accounts also are necessary in order to identify the root of the abuses. They can also be a force for deterrence and a reminder that the demand for justice will not be compromised.
- Documentation further serves to signal the presence and independence of Iranian civil society, and reminds citizens of their moral responsibility for things which happen in their country.
- A balance between peace and justice must be struck. Victims’ need to be recognized is important, but society must try to avoid a cycle of revenge. The post-apartheid South African regime emphasized dialogue and reconciliation, others have demanded repentance from past perpetrators, or held trials.
- If handled well, truth-telling, whatever form it takes, can lead to national reconciliation, providing an opportunity to learn from past crimes and strengthen peace and new democratic institutions.
|“As it is very clear that it is not possible to prosecute the Iranian leadership under current circumstances, we should prepare the path by documentation and dissemination of the reports about those involved in each phase of persecution.” |
—Payam Akhavan, McGill University
The Way Ahead: Civil Society
Iran’s active and increasingly influential civil society can carry the truth-seeking process forward in preparation for transitional justice. Considerations for achieving success include:
- The information acquired via the documentation process must be accessible to Iranians, particularly in the younger generation.
- Iranians of all political backgrounds should take part in the documentation process, as that is the only path to reconciliation.
- International organizations can provide advice and past examples, but they should always encourage a sense of domestic ownership of the judicial process.
|“It is true that to bring the perpetrators to justice, we need the state or the international community of states, but nothing should stop us, as a civil society, ordinary citizens, to assume our moral responsibility.” |
—Ladan Boroumand, Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation
Role of the International Community
The Iranian diaspora and the international community also remain relevant to the process.
- Iranian participants regretted that much of the international community’s foreign policy towards Iran remains focused on the question of nuclear power.
- Participants agreed that an international policy framed on human rights would be far more helpful to the Iranian people, and could lead to a better support mechanism for any potential transition process.
- The recent US and EU sanctions against individuals responsible for crimes against humanity is a step in the right direction.
|“There’s the regime and there’s this thing we call civil society—the democracy-loving youthful population of the country. How can one nuance sanctions and diplomacy to isolate one and empower the other and at the same time handle the nuclear issue?” |
—Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Role of Legal Reform
- It is possible for transitional justice to take place without regime change, as indicated in Morocco. However, this requires political will to reform and a strong civil society to drive the change.
- Without the acceptance of fundamental changes within existing legal and constitutional frameworks, there will be no room for transitional justice in Iran under the current regime.
In the videos below, Ahmed Herzenni discusses how a change in attitudes towards human rights issues led to new laws forming an explicit part of the Moroccan Constitution 2011 and Charles Villa-Vicencio shares lessons from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
To review related workshop papers, click here.