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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Transitional Justice in New Gambia: the importance of outreach and public participation to TRRC

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By Tabora Bojang

Every transitional justice context requires a unique approach and goals adapted to the specific challenges and opportunities of a given society. It entails a wide range of holistic mechanisms employed to ensure sustainable peace (in which goals are harmonious) in a society that is metamorphosing from a violent conflict or repression to societal stability.

These provide opportunities for such societies to address past human rights abuses, mass atrocities or other forms of severe trauma in order to facilitate a smooth transition into a more democratic or peaceful future. The measures employed in transitional justice can be both judicial and extra judicial in nature.
The Gambia Government establishes a transitional justice institution known as the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission with the mandate to manage truth seeking and investigate human rights violations committed under the last regime during the period July 1994 to January 2017.

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Gambians are now presented with an opportunity to make lasting and wide reaching social changes by addressing the lingering sources of oppression in governance and social practices.
The TRRC will be an independent body under the direction of eleven commissioners with an operational mandate of an initial period of 2 years subject to extension by the President.
During this period, the commission will uncover the truth about Gambia’s recent past through an inclusive and objective process of consultations, statement takings and investigations.

The commission investigations will further seek to identify all persons, authorities, institutions and organisations involved in human rights violations to understand if such violations were the result of deliberate planning on the part of the state, its organs or other groups or an individual. It will also determine whether any person destroyed evidence in order to conceal violations and human rights abuses. Any person may be called to meet the commission or attend a session or hearing.

To the fullest extent possible the TRRC will also establish and make known the fate or whereabouts of disappeared victims. Following which the commission will recommend the granting of reparations to victims and prosecutions or amnesties for the perpetrators.
The TRRC will be responsible for evaluating perpetrator testimony and recommending prosecutions or amnesty based on accounts of victims, perpetrators and witnesses as well as thorough investigations into these cases.

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It may recommend amnesty to a person making a full disclosure of his or her involvement in human rights abuses which will only be applied in consultation with victims of the applicant’s crimes and cannot be applied to grave violations of human rights such as torture, forced disappearance or severe acts of sexual violence.
Transitional justice (TJ) measures may vary in their immediate objectives, but all of them are designed to serve purposes that are public and political in nature.

The success of institutions like the upcoming commission and the implementation of its programs will largely depend on their impact not only on the individuals they directly affect but also on the broader society in which it operates.

There should be a sense of public ownership in the process to promote inclusiveness and transparency. Public engagements involving outreach and civic education programs are therefore fundamental to the goals of the commission, especially with regard to properly informing the public so that they can participate in the justice process because giving the affected population a voice in the process will go a long way in addressing their needs.

The TRRC should be a place for all Gambians to participate in understanding the truth and building an inclusive national dialogue and to help in building a new relationship between citizenry and the state based on civic trust.
Taking into account the democratic aspirations in the background of TJ measures, the transparency of the processes, and the inclusiveness they promote (and how they are accordingly perceived by the population) are key components in building their legitimacy.

Beyond the accomplishment of their most immediate goals—whether these are the prosecution of former perpetrators, the disclosure of the truth about the past, or the provision of reparations to victims of mass atrocity—transitional justice processes ultimately aim to catalyze a shift of norms and values according to a culture of democracy and respect for human rights.

For the process to have a lasting impact, it is prudent that the population to take an active role and contribute to building the desired social changes beyond the work of the TJ measure and those enacting the measure must first believe that they are carrying out the work precisely on the population’s behalf. For such measures are to be meaningful to the affected population and addresses its real concerns, the community has to have a voice in creating their development.

According to H. B Danish, ‘Peace and education are inseparable aspects of civilization’ no civilization is truly progressive without education, and no education system is truly civilizing unless it based on the universal principles of peace. A truly civilized society is united, diverse, equal, just, free, and peaceful.
Whether the transitional justice process is internally driven or built upon the support of the international community, its functioning, legitimacy, and impact will be strongly related to the relationship that it is established with the population.

For members of the affected community to participate in the justice process (as witnesses, testimony givers, or beneficiaries) it is necessary for them to be properly informed and to understand the work of the commission with their options for participation, explain and broadly publicize the aims and results of the process.
Despite its importance, however, neither the involvement nor the support of the population in the justice process can be taken for granted. Transitional Justice Measures create new and, in many cases, unknown types of institutions that function in complex ways. It is not surprising for the population to perceive them as distant or even inaccessible.

Quite often especially in poor and fragile states, the coexistence of and competition among different urgent needs can make it difficult for the population to understand the importance, let alone the relevance, of TJ measures. While in some settings attitudes of indifference or denial about past atrocities past will still be prevalent, it is also not uncommon to find deeply divided societies in which TJ measures regularly confront bitter political propaganda and opposition.

Although it is essential, the involvement and support of the public for TJ measures cannot be taken for granted. TJ institutions are novel and often unknown, and may spark bitter opposition as they confront controversial topics within deeply divided societies. As a result, a gap may emerge between the actions and objectives of the institution and the needs and perceptions of the society it seeks to serve.

If this disconnect is not addressed, the institution’s ability to achieve its goals will suffer accordingly. For this reason, outreach programs are a key component of transitional justice processes. As a technical term, outreach in a TJ context refers to a set of tools—the combination of materials and activities—that a TJ measure puts in place to build direct channels of communication with affected communities, in order to raise awareness of the justice process and promote understanding of the measure.
Outreach is therefore central to the mandate of the TRRC, as it is a crucial means for the justice program to engage with and impact the public.

The fundamental importance of these tasks makes outreach an essential part of any TJ measure, requiring the dedication of strategic planning and resources.
However, the level of thought and support devoted to outreach work has varied widely among TJ institutions, and many still operate without comprehensive outreach programs. Outreach has not been widely systematized; there is still no common definition of the term or understanding of the activities it entails, and there is a lack of recognition and support for the crucial role that it plays.
Outreach activities should work not only to disseminate information to the public, but also to create forums for two-way communication through dialogues, consultation, and participatory events at all stages of the TJ process.

However outreach programs should distinguish between the different audiences that they should target. Each of these groups may respond better to different types of engagement, and they may have different needs or present different potential contributions and obstacles to the TJ process.
The different target groups may include the general public, women, disabled persons, indigenous groups, religious or community leaders, youth and children, displaced persons and diaspora groups, ex-combatants, the security sector, local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), politicians, professional organizations and unions, and the international community.

This is essential to promote local ownership of the measure, address the concerns of affected communities, and ensure that the TJ program will take their needs and preferences into account.
Moreover, outreach programs should consider follow-up and legacy programs from the beginning, so that they can lay the foundation for future work. Especially if the TJ institution will disband after fulfilling its mandate, preparations to disseminate the final products are crucial, and partnerships with more permanent institutions may be necessary.

To ensure transparent functioning of a TJ measure, the public must in general have access to all the information necessary to understand the goals, structure, and working procedures of the institution, as well as timely updates about its progress.
Given the novelty of TJ measures in general, there is always need to explain their rationale, but in situations in which there is a generalized lack of access to outlets of information, poor infrastructure, weak socialization, and low levels of education and literacy, measures need to be proactively adopted to guarantee both the adequate reception and understanding of the information.

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