Dealing with Past Human Rights Abuses and Atrocities: a Recipe for Humanity

Here is a post I did on the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Olive Branch Blog:

April 2012 | Olive Branch Post by Colette Rausch

Colette RauschApril 30, 2012

Upon learning of the Charles Taylor conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Tribunal, I had many mixed feelings and emotions.

On one hand, the verdict is victory for holding leaders accountable for atrocities that they orchestrate. In Taylor’s case, the former president of Liberia had supported rebels who embarked on a violent and brutal struggle to overthrow the government in neighboring Sierra Leone. The rebels engaged in horrific crimes, including murder rape and slavery, as well as the kidnapping and conscription of children — forced to engage in violent warfare and unspeakable atrocities, aided through Taylor.

On the other hand, while the verdict and its impact on the present and future conduct of similarly inclined despots should certainly be celebrated — there remains a daunting list of open wounds and troubling issues that have yet to be addressed by the world community.

This includes holding accountable all the others involved in the atrocities, addressing the still lingering trauma, physical and emotional injuries and financial losses of Taylor’s victims in Sierra Leone. And while the Special Tribunal’s verdict addresses his involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict, it leaves those for which he was involved in his own country of Liberia unsettled.

Transitional Justice

So my mixed feelings open up the promise of what we call “transitional justice” or “TJ.”

Very generally speaking, TJ is a process by which a country deals with past abuses during a conflict or under an authoritarian regime. TJ’s goals are many: establish truth about what happened and why, acknowledge victims’ suffering, hold perpetrators accountable, compensate for past wrongs, prevent future abuses and promote social healing and reconciliation.

There have been a variety of mechanism and techniques used in numerous post-conflict and post-authoritarian countries to try and accomplish these ambitious and challenging goals, including criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations and compensation programs, vetting systems to remove abusive officials from public offices, reforming offending institutions (such as the military and police), building monuments and psycho-social programs to address traumatized individuals and societies.

Just last week I was at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS), at the U.S. Naval Station in Newport, Rhode Island, teaching as a guest instructor at their Laws of Armed Conflict and Human Rights course.

As I prepared my discussion on the laws of armed conflict for the military officers from around the globe, including officer’s from Afghanistan, Armenia, Colombia, Mozambique, Yemen and Albania who were the course’s participants, I found myself pouring over my Powerpoints and presentations, trying to organize them in a logical, technical and meaningful way.

And as I did so, I couldn’t help but be stricken by the feeling I was a baker assembling a recipe for a cake. “Add a pinch of this. A sprinkle of that and go through all these steps and then “poof” everything will be fine.”

But I know better than that.

One of the privileges and drawbacks and hardships of my position is that I travel to these same war-torn countries and meet and speak with the victims of these unspeakable atrocities. As I add their lessons to my Powerpoint, each of their faces and the pain and loss they express flashes through my mind— sometimes an unwelcome visual aid to the gravity and import of the lessons I will attempt to impart on the course’s participants.

At the conclusion of my presentation, we watched the powerful and gripping documentary that USIP produced in association with York Zimmerman Inc., called “Confronting the Truth: Truth Commission and Societies in Transition.”

Without exception, with every airing, at the documentary’s ending, silence fills the room for minutes on end.

The heaviness of what we have just watched, from the victim’s stories of horrific atrocities involving rape, torture, and brutality beyond comprehension, coupled with the realization that, even when equipped with all the powerful and proven transitional justice tools we cover in my lecture, not one is a panacea for bringing peace and justice to the victims or is capable of healing an entire country by itself.

So as I come back to the Charles Taylor verdict— a shining example of a transitional justice success story — perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn from his trial and the experiences of his victims is that there are certain ghastly and horrific things humankind does to humankind that no matter how well intentioned or how hard we try, human kind simply cannot undo.


Building Peace in Afghanistan

My institute published an article about our work in Afghanistan.  The reporter interviewed me about the early days of our work there. It is hard to believe that it was over nine years ago since my first trip to Kabul.  I was reading my journal entries from the second trip in September 2002.  (The first trip was around May 2002.)  Here are a few excerpts.  Seems like a million years ago, really. Especially because this was before I even had a family and settled down in the suburbs. And became a gardener.

29 September 2002 (Sunday)

Just after I shut this (my new Sony VAIO computer) off last night, the bomb went off and shook our building.  The Mustafa is the journalists favorite and off they went to find out what happened.  A camera guy dragged down some equipment.  We found out this morning that it was in the neighborhood of the US Embassy a few miles away from us.  Funny, but I knew that as it felt exactly like the bomb that went off in Pristina at the Yugoslav office and woke me up.  It was the same distance away.  Luckily no one was killed although some were injured.


We went to ….  President Karzai’s palace.  Talk about security.  At the first checkpoint, we had our car and stuff searched.  They radioed and got approval to let us through.  Then we went through another checkpoint.  Same drill.   Except I had to go to a little room where women would search me.  That is standard around here.  In a few places, they didn’t have women in the little room so they just searched my bag but left me alone as they cannot touch me.  In the little room with the women, I just love it.  I get to actually interact with women after spending the entire day surrounded by men and seeing women but more like ghosts in burqas or covered and off on their own.  The women were more thorough than any security person I have ever encountered.  They went through everything.  They smelled my cosmetics to make sure it was what it appeared to be.  Then they took everything that looked metallic, even my gum with the tin looking packaging, and gave it to the men to hold until I came out.  They did a body pat down and completely touched and squeezed everything!  I was kinda surprised how intimate it was.  They had some dough things there and gave me one.  Then they gave me tea when I tried to say something and couldn’t speak due to the dryness of the dough thing.  I told them thank you in Dari and they giggled.  It was kinda fun.  On my way back through when I needed to pick up my bag of stuff, they were eating lunch which was palaw, rice with meat.  They offered me some.  I tried to refuse politely but they took out a spoon.  So, I took a spoonful and motioned how good it was.  They wanted me to stay but I had to point that others were waiting.  It was just cool.  Wish I could speak Dari. I would have stayed with them and chatted about how things were, etc.  I also wish I had taken a photo but completely forgot.   Oh, and after we got through that, we drove toward the palace and saw the American special forces guys who are protecting Karzai.  They searched every car with a bomb sniffing dog named Dino.  So, I am happy to report that security is quite strong there.  It is completely different than when I was there three months ago.  We also saw the Turkish military training the Afghan National Guard (to protect Karzai and the Palace) on the grounds of the palace. That was pretty cool.  There were about 50 Afghans doing drills of some sort.  Tactical things.  

3 October 2002

 The traffic in Kabul is nuts.  The pollution is horrible.  That combined with dust leaves you coated and coughing by the end of the day.  There was a story on CNN about the traffic.  It was funny being here and seeing the story and recognizing the streets we have been stuck on.  Because of all the traffic jams, kids selling the newspaper and magazines published through international organizations tapped on the window and hold them up.  You purchase them by passing money out the window and you get the paper/magazine.  Well I wanted a magazine I had been seeing around so while we were stopped I motioned to a kid I wanted it.  I had just passed the money out the window when the driver started to take off.  The kid ran after us and just got the magazine to me.  It all happened so quickly I didn’t think to tell the driver to stop.  The kid could have just taken the money and left me without the magazine but he was so proud having caught us to give it me that he smiled and waved and I did the same.  It is all funny money transactions anyway as they want dollars and will say two dollars or one dollar.  When you say how much in Afghanis, they will say 20,000.  But that is only about 40 cents.  Last time I was here it was 10,000.  Inflation.  I have seen that all over.  Things have gone up for internationals (including carpets unless you have a contact like we did with Zaher) since there are more of them and Afghans are quick learners. 

We have noticed and talked about the fact that the international news is not covering some of the stories here.  For example, the bomb that went off near the US Embassy.  According to one of the foreign service officers we met with, they could feel it to the extent it actually made their bodies vibrate.  Plus the guard gate windows were blown out.  But the news was a little story on BBC and only the ticker tape mention in CNN (the banner they do at the bottom.)  Then there was a near fire fight at the Palace the other day.  Fahim (Defense Minister/commander of the Northern Alliance, engaged in a power play with Karzai) crashed through the gates of the Palace.  He almost ran over Dino the dog I told you about.  The American Special Forces guys drew their guns on him and his guys.  Fahim ordered his guys to shoot.  They didn’t but had their guns drawn.  The person we know there walked out in the middle of it and ended up taking a dive and crawling out on his stomach.  The palace staff were so freaked out they stampeded out and three guys on bicycles were injured when they crashed into a wall in the chaos.  The situation calmed down.  But this just shows how close this place is to all hell breaking loose.  But this didn’t get in the news.  The guy we know was right there and saw it.  We figure there isn’t coverage because they don’t want to freak people out and want to keep the image as secure. 

USIP’s Afghan Rule of Law at Work: Strengthening Long-Term Security

June 2011 | News Feature by Thomas Omestad

June 7, 2011

The enormous task of helping to stabilize Afghanistan depends on much more than Afghan and international forces making military gains against the Taliban and other extremists; it depends as well on encouraging durable political and legal advances in a country that has suffered from a lack of democracy, basic rights and real recourse to the tools of justice.

To that end, efforts to help Afghans establish the rule of law have been drawing on the expertise of specialists from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) for years. Much of USIP’s rule-of-law work has been funded by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has supported USIP’s broader conflict resolution and peacebuilding training and education there.

USIP has been working at the complicated intersections of law, politics, culture, crime and civil disputes to help Afghans move toward a society in which the rule of law becomes a norm upon which they can depend. The work is prompted by the recognition that a country that routinely denies access to justice is likely to spawn instability, terrorism and other violence. That dynamic, left unchecked, retards efforts to defeat the appeal and reach of insurgents, whose own sense of justice features meting out brutal punishments on those who run afoul of their militant demands.

As Scott Worden, the USIP senior program officer who heads its Afghan rule-of-law team, explains, “Small disputes go unresolved. They escalate into larger feuds, and they become fuel for the insurgency. There are much larger implications here.” Adds Worden: “Rule of law is one of the thickest pillars supporting the foundation of a stable Afghanistan….Unsecured or lawless areas provide fertile ground for the Taliban.”

Shahmahmood Miakhel, USIP’s country director based in Afghanistan, puts it directly: “We need to help build a stable environment so international military forces do not have to come back.”

USIP was among the first organizations to focus on law and justice issues in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida in 2001. USIP officers participated in a systematic effort to collect and digitize previous Afghan laws that had been scrapped or ignored under Taliban rule, drawing on the resources of the Afghan diaspora and the U.S. Library of Congress. A USIP-convened international conference brought together Afghan and international experts to share ideas on strengthening the rule of law in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Additionally,based on its research and increasing work with Afghans, USIP published large portions of two volumes titled “Model Codes for Post-Conflict Criminal Justice” and translated the entire handbook on “Combating Serious Crimes” into Dari. These publications provided a starting point to identify international legal standards that might be applied in the Afghan context. “In the early days, we tried to supply tools to them,” said Colette Rausch, who directs the Institute’s Rule of Law Innovation Center.

In more recent years, USIP’s work has spread into many of the most sensitive issues emerging from a newly democratic Afghan government’s struggles to extend the rule of law where lawlessness once reigned. Said Veeraya K. Somvongsiri, USAID’s rule of law team leader in Afghanistan, “USIP occupies a unique position straddling policy and practitioner communities. USIP has provided intellectual leadership on key rule-of-law issues.” There is an additional, practical dimension as well, Somvongsiri noted: “USIP has convening power and access to or relations with a wide range of actors in civil society and government.”

Key USIP initiatives include:

Linking formal and informal justice systems. While formal structures of jurisprudence dominate in the West, most criminal and civil justice procedures in Afghanistan take place through informal channels—often community councils known as shuras and jirgas, or mullahs as well. That tradition may not comport well with orthodox Western advice on bringing justice systems to a place like Afghanistan. But USIP specialists concluded that within an overwhelmingly rural population composed of diverse tribal and ethnic groups, informal justice methods are often broadly known—and they should be considered as a short-term bridge to the goal of competent state police, prosecutors and courts. “You can’t ignore reality,” said Rausch.

USIP helped spearhead the pragmatic shift on these issues, drawing the participation of other U.S. and foreign aid agencies. “They look to USIP as a leading edge in approaches to improving rule of law activities in Afghanistan,” said Christina Bennett, a development expert who has studied the effectiveness of USIP’s Afghanistan programs. “USIP has a lot to offer the international community and Afghanistan in terms of rule of law. The level of expertise is higher than many other organizations working there.”

Since 2002, USIP has been studying traditional dispute resolution in the country — with an intensifying focus on how to mesh the informal with the formal so that legal disputes can be resolved more reliably and effectively. The informal procedures have the advantages of retaining considerable public trust and drawing on voluntary participation. But the country’s social upheavals, insurgent violence and new mobility all have made enforcement more difficult, and the outcomes of disputes can sometimes be tilted to reflect the clout of a locality’s influential tribes or clans.

With USIP advice, the U.S. military and Embassy in Kabul have tailored their rule-of-law aid programs to support the ability of local shuras and jirgas to consider disputes, depriving the Taliban of political kindling while at the same time developing ways to monitor practices that deprive women and other disadvantaged groups of their legal rights. The value of USIP’s field work in helping to secure military gains over the longer run was cited in a 2009 letter by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. “In Afghanistan, USIP’s work on the informal justice system has been invaluable as we work toward improving the rule of law at the provincial level,” Petraeus wrote.

The security rationale for the USIP initiative is direct: “If both the formal and informal systems aren’t able to solve a dispute, the people involved seek Taliban help,” Miakhel. USIP program officers, in fact, have been training U.S. officials in how the Taliban exploit gaps in Afghan justice. In the past few months, the Institute has expanded the number of pilot projects to build or strengthen links between informal and formal justice from eight to 13 districts, and for the first time it has begun operating in some recently heavy-conflict areas in the provinces of Nimroz, Helmand and Uruzgan.

USIP has also been providing advice to the Afghan central government on proposed legal reforms related to criminal justice and due process. “The Institute has been ahead of the curve,” said Rausch.

Implementing the Constitution. A new Constitution establishing a democratic framework was ratified in 2004. Yet significant and politically touchy issues remain about the roles of two separate entities in interpreting the Constitution, which is ambiguous on several key points such as who can remove cabinet members from office or when election results are final. USIP has been researching those “gaps” and is consulting with the newly formed Afghan Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution, as well as with Afghanistan’s Supreme Court itself. The aim is to encourage resolving the differences through dialogue and averting a dangerous constitutional crisis. The Institute is also assisting Kabul University in the creation of a Center for Constitutional Studies, a future venue for discussion and debate of constitutional questions.

Transitional justice. USIP is helping strengthen Afghan nongovernmental organizations to take on the human rights abuses of the past. Even a decade after the Taliban was toppled, many Afghans want to see the truth about misdeeds exposed and accountability assigned. Despite some political reservations in Kabul, said Worden, “There’s still a huge pent-up demand for addressing past crimes.” USIP has helped to create a network of human rights and other nongovernmental groups that are documenting past crimes—a network known as the Transitional Justice Coordinating Group. At the same time, Institute convened a conference and commissioned further research to energize thinking in Afghanistan and among Islamic scholars on how Islamic thought can play a role in popular demands for post-conflict justice—an effort that could strengthen support for holding human rights abusers accountable for their crimes. USIP has also provided technical advice to the Afghan government commission charged with weeding out candidates in the 2009 elections who had links to illegal armed groups.

Support for civil society. The Institute has been encouraging ordinary Afghans to get involved in issues of justice and conflict resolution. USIP grantee Equal Access International produced a radio series on government transparency, security and the demand for justice that reached between 900,000 and one million people. Forty five public forums were held involving more than 900 Afghan citizens; they discussed how the topics covered on the radio broadcasts can be applied on the ground. Overall, USIP has partnered with 15 organizations to improve the capacity of the country’s civil society to conduct open dialogue on conflict resolution, good governance and transitional justice.

A rule-of-law network. The Institute continues to expand an online discussion community for practitioners called the International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL). Through detailed, practical commentaries, professional law experts offer advice, recount relevant experience and provide contacts for those in Afghanistan who are trying to advance the rule of law. INPROL, though global, is being tapped widely in Afghanistan. One-third of members who have joined over the past six months are in Afghanistan. They include a number of U.S. officials at work in the country.

New Beginnings and a Tragic End

 It was so hot today that after about an hour and a half at the community garden plot, we needed to take a break and get out of the sun. Calvin helped out in the beginning and then went with Patrick to the park next door to the community garden and they played a Harry Potter board game so I could finish my gardening duties. There were only a few other plotters in the community garden while I was there. One plotter was with her parents and this was the first time she had gardened so we talked about tomato supports and ideas. I so love when other plotters are in the garden and we can chat about soil, spacing, water and planting.  I love gardening because it allows me to plant seeds of life, witness continual growth and renewal. This helps me when my work often involves the reality of violence and death.

Setting Up

Using our New Knee Pads

My time in the garden today allowed me to process the news that I received last night from my colleague from Afghanistan. He reported that General Daud Daud (Chief of Police for all of Northern Afghanistan), two Afghan police and two German soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in an area that was believed to be relatively safe. It was so tragic and hit me very hard last night as I could sense my colleague’s loss, both personally and for his country. It is times like this that renews my resolve for building peace and fostering “soft power” to help put an end to such senseless loss of human life. This coming on Memorial Day weekend which also happens to coincide with the US House of Representatives taking aim again at the peace institute. This time voting a few days back to repeal its charter. I found this so ironic that at the time when we are honoring those who died for our country, we would also be putting such low value on peace and the peacemakers who, working side by side with our troops, risk their own lives to prevent war and save human life.