Magazine article UN Chronicle

Establishing Effective Accountability Mechanisms for Human Rights Violations

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Establishing Effective Accountability Mechanisms for Human Rights Violations

Article excerpt

Rule of law and institutional reform cannot start with a "clean slate". Understanding the patterns of past human rights violations and ending impunity for the worst violations are indispensable for successful transformative processes. At the core of any effort to establish accountability are three indispensable and interlinked rights: the right to truth, the right to justice, and the right to an effective remedy and reparation. In order to implement these rights, a comprehensive strategy is required that involves governments and civil society and addresses gaps of knowledge, capacity and political commitment.

Genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other gross violations of human rights undermine the fabric of entire societies. They can destabilize States and whole regions, threatening international peace and security. In the aftermath of such terrible events, it is essential to establish the truth about the international crimes and gross violations that took place. A people's knowledge of the history of its oppression is part of its heritage. Knowing the truth allows victims and relatives to gain a sense of closure and restores a measure of dignity.

Justice is the indispensable companion of truth. Accountability for crimes and gross violations, including individual accountability under criminal law, is key to reinstate public trust in justice and security institutions to rebuild the rule of law and sustainable peace. At the same time, we need to pay more attention to the victims. Everyone is aware of the tremendous physical, psychological and material price victims of armed conflict pay. However, efforts to end impunity have, unfortunately, not been accompanied by equally strong efforts to address the plight of victims. There is a clear need to rectify this imbalance so that victims can obtain effective remedies and reparation for the harm they suffered.


Today, no State can legitimately feign ignorance about the extent and causes of gross violations committed under its watch. This applies even if its own institutions do not pick up such violations, as they should. There is hardly a gross violation that is not documented by the universal system of independent human rights mechanisms composed of the United Nations Treaty Bodies, the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, Commissions of Inquiry established on an ad hoc basis, by my Office and our 58 United Nations human rights field presences across the world. Regional human rights mechanisms as well as domestic and international non-governmental organizations also play an important role in bringing key human rights challenges to the attention of States.

Efforts to document gross violations are becoming increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive. The Human Rights Council's Commission of Inquiry on Syria has worked now for over a year. Based on hundreds of interviews and review of other evidence, it has identified a number of senior government officials and military commanders, regarding whom there is reason to believe to be implicated in international crimes. In light of the long legacy of atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) carried out a comprehensive mapping of the most serious human rights and humanitarian law violations that occurred between March 1993 and June 2003.

Even where gross violations are well documented, States often require technical advice to determine what combination of law, regulation and policy is best suited to address them. However, while decision makers may benefit from such advice and from knowledge about comparative experiences and lessons learned elsewhere, experience shows that accountability efforts must be nationally owned by the people concerned in order to be sustainable.

This is particularly important in the area of transitional justice. …

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