International justice begins at home

21 Nov 2012

 Timorese Judges being sworn in and taking oaths. Credit: UNDP Timor Leste

The restoration of justice and the punishment of those who commit human rights abuses can be vital first steps in peacebuilding; both for countries recovering from conflict, and for societies trying to overcome the trauma of violence.

In March this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first permanent criminal court mandated to investigate and prosecute those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, handed down its first judgment since being established in 2002. Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was found guilty of using children under the age of 15 in armed hostilities.

This judgment inaugurated a new age where the ICC acts as a court of last resort. This notion, called “complementarity,” forms the founding principle of the ICC, which believes that the primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting serious crimes rests with national authorities and states. If countries are willing and able, justice is best delivered where the crimes occurred.

However, many post-conflict countries do not have the capacity to conduct such investigations. Even if the political will exists, domestic judicial systems often lack adequate witness protection services, prison facilities, and other resources to conduct fair trials. To realize the complementarity principle, there needs to be a closer relationship between international justice actors, development agencies and those implementing the rule of law. Judges, lawyers, prosecutors, the police and corrections officers need help and training.

To strengthen this understanding in practice, UNDP in partnership with many organizations such as the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), have contributed to putting the rights of victims first in numerous countries where we work.

In recent years, measures to address impunity in Guatemala have brought those responsible for human rights abuses to justice, as well as allowed the Attorney General to prosecute a former head of state for genocide. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, mobile courts and other measures are helping to give justice to victims of sexual violence.

UNDP, ICTJ and many other partner organizations agree on the importance of the complementarity agenda. We will continue to work together to help countries affected by crises to build up their own justice institutions so these terrible crimes do not go unpunished. This is a step in the right direction and will help strengthen the rule of law in many fragile countries, promote civic trust, and the rights of victims to justice, truth and reparations.

Talk to us: how can countries affected by crisis build up their justice institutions?

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