Transitional Justice in the Arab Countries: Opportunities and Challenges

By Rishmawit, Mona | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview
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Transitional Justice in the Arab Countries: Opportunities and Challenges

Rishmawit, Mona, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

My remarks will highlight some of the main factors that affect how we can consider transitional justice issues in the Arab countries that have undergone transition. I will then briefly reflect on how the five components of transitional justice have been implemented in these countries.


There are five factors that should be taken into account when considering transitional justice issues in the Arab countries that have undergone some change.

The first factor to take into account is the manner in which the transitions took place. Peaceful protest led by young men and women was initially the way to bring about change in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya provided a different model with the foreign military intervention and the determination of the male fighters leading to the toppling of the dictatorship. The result is that one of the major challenges in Libya today is the weapons scattered in the hands of young men, with different armed groups not always operating under the control of the National Transitional Council. In Yemen the desires of the youth and powerful tribal leaders converged, and eventually led to the handover of power by President Saleh to the vice-president. In Bahrain, while the protest continues to be peaceful, it is met with force.

The second factor is the role of social media. There is no doubt that social media played a significant role among the educated middle class and youth, particularly students and young professionals. But this was not the case with the poorer and illiterate sectors of society. The result is that the increased space for liberty achieved by the youth allowed Islamic movements which were previously outlawed to come to power through the ballot box. The appeal of these movements came from two main factors. First, it was their ability to organize themselves and address the social needs of a large part of the population through the alternative social services they have been able to provide for decades while corrupt regimes were destroying the middle class and pocketing the national budget. Second, the oppression inflicted by the previous regimes on members of the Islamic movements through torture, unfair trial, censorship, and above all forging elections for decades, gave these groups a level of legitimacy that contributed to their winning of the first free and fair elections conducted in Tunisia and Egypt. The problem is that while many of the emerging leaders of today are yesterday's victims of human rights violations, this is not a guarantee that they can rule on the basis of human rights principles. Understanding how the norms operate while making policy decisions will be key to fostering the democratic nature of the emerging governing structures. Human rights dialogue with these emerging groups is essential.

The third factor is the key role of satellite television channels in promoting or even directing the protest. However, the exact role they played is yet to be fully understood and objectively analyzed. Through the way the coverage and debates have taken place, some scenarios were advanced, particularly with regard to military intervention. We see this today with the comparisons being made between Libya and Syria. Also, the coverage was not even-handed, with some of the protest in countries like Bahrain receiving less attention.

The fourth factor is the role played by the military in the region, which has led to different scenarios for change. The role played by the army in Tunisia to protect the protestors and facilitate the power change remains unique. In Egypt, while the military initially stayed on the fence and then became an element of change, today they are unhelpfully clinching to power. This is complicating the transition and making the situation in Egypt closer to that of Chile and Argentina, where the military held onto their privileged status for a long time. In Syria the army is largely on the side of the government and a main instrument of oppression, and we are yet to see major defections.

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Transitional Justice in the Arab Countries: Opportunities and Challenges


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