How to Achieve Justice: Interview with Fernando Travesí, Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice

How to Achieve Justice: Interview with Fernando Travesí, Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice

. 8 min read

Fernando Travesí is the Executive Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). He has over 20 years of international experience in transitional justice, human rights, and rule of law, working for both international organizations and NGOs. Prior to joining ICTJ in 2014, he was the Director of the UNDP Transitional Justice Basket Fund in Colombia. He is a recognized novelist and playwright, winning awards such as the Spanish National Prize of Theater.

As the director of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), you partner directly with victims and civil society organizations to ensure that human rights violations do not recur. Why is this approach key to your mission of increasing global accountability?

When we are talking about massive human rights violations, I think we've all understood by now that focusing on unseen perpetrators is good, but not enough. The experiences of the victims and the rights of the victims have to be fulfilled and materialized if we want to achieve sustainable peace. The understanding of justice, when facing massive human rights violations, is really not only retributive justice or punishment. It's also about restoring the rule of law, the credibility of our institutions, and the relationship of trust between citizens and the state – and among citizens themselves. You cannot do that without listening, consulting, paying attention [to], and giving a platform to the victims who should be at the center of the accountability processes.

That's why [our approach] is key. Because if you take any example and you only take an approach of criminal justice, you will see that even if a successful criminal prosecution [is made], that would only involve a limited number of victims. But there will be a lot of victims, that are not associated with that particular case, that might feel that justice has not been served, because their case was not included. So you really need to deploy alternative or complementary ways of administering and delivering justice that are beyond criminal accountability, and you have to put the victims at the center of that.

When advising states and governments, what benefits or drawbacks come from being situated outside the traditional framework of sovereign justice systems?

When you have a context where massive violations have happened in a country, there is damage; there has been harm on the social contract of that country. There is a [lack] of credibility [with governmental systems and] institutions that have not protected [people against] crimes, and sometimes even the institutions themselves have a degree of responsibility or full responsibility in the commission of crime. So when you try to rebuild a state, and you have a government with the political will of delivering justice and rebuilding this state, they need to understand that restoring that credibility is as important as a successful accountability process.

Transitional justice processes don’t need to be measured only by the results. They need to be measured in themselves, meaning that the processes have to be participatory [and] have to be based on consultations. They have to really reach out to remote areas of the country or remote populations that are usually left out of this process. [Justice processes also] have to be inclusive if you want to send a message that the country is going into a new phase. So it's not only about a criminal case, it's [about] really understanding the different layers of social, political, judicial, [and] legal implications that these cases have in these contexts.

ICTJ has worked in over 50 countries, including on every inhabited continent. How do you choose which particular justice movements around the world to support, and what kind of research goes into that process?

That is a very good question, because there is not a unique response to that. Of course, [like] every institution, we have limited capacity. We would like to be everywhere, but we can't be everywhere. So we have to make our choices, our priorities. How those priorities are made, it depends.

Many times, we'll respond to the demands of civil society – victims’ organizations, human rights groups, civil society organizations – [in] countries that are calling ICTJ, and [asking] us for our advice, accompaniment and support. Sometimes the demand comes from governments themselves, when those governments have the will or the political intention to turn the page and go into a transition process. And sometimes it’s our own decision to get involved in a situation, but of course, we always work through partnerships. For instance, there are many civil society organizations from Yemen, Syria, Libya, [and] Afghanistan that have called ICTJ to come in and help them on the design and implementation of our accountability processes. There are some other countries, like The Gambia, Colombia, [and] Tunisia after the revolution, [whose] governments called ICTJ to ask for advice and accompaniment.

Then, there are some other times that we are approaching or taking initiative [when] going into a country. In either case, we always do a country assessment to [analyze] the security situation, the capacity of civil society, the political opportunities that may or may not exist, the risks for our partners or ourselves, [and] the feasibility of different approaches. The result of that assessment, which includes research interviews [and] field assessments, will determine whether we engage in a sustainable, longer term [project], or in a surgical or targeted intervention. Sometimes, it's a huge program in which we have a lot of work [to do] and [thus] we deploy or create a team to engage for a number of years. [Other] times, [it] might be [a] more concrete intervention to respond to identified needs.

Has there been a time when a government has reached out to ICTJ and you had to decline because of risk or other factors?

We try not to be black and white, we try to see what the opportunities are. It’s not that we don't engage, it’s that we are an independent organization, and [our] assessment may result [in] a different approach than the government wants to have. For instance, a government might want to conduct criminal prosecutions for massive human rights violations, and our assessment may [be], “Well, you might need to reform the judiciary before doing that. You might need to review your legal framework in order to do that. You don't have the investigative capacities to do that. You don't have [an] established relationship with civil society or victims’ organizations, so you have to do that before filing a case.” Sometimes, when the government is willing [to reach out to us], because [of] the political dimensions and the pressure for results, their [desired] speed might be faster than reality allows, so we might come back with a different approach, trying to make [our partnership] credible, legitimate, inclusive, and sustainable.

You previously worked with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), directing a program in Colombia that provided support to victims of armed conflict. How did you transition from the UN into the non-governmental organization space, and what aspects of your work in transitional justice have changed?

You know, my jump from the United Nations to civil society is not a jump – it's a circle, because I started my career in civil society organizations. After that, I joined the Red Cross movement, moved to the United Nations, and went back to civil society. So it has given me the opportunity to see the work [of transitional justice] from different aspects. All of them have advantages and disadvantages, and I think all of them have a role. I do believe in partnerships, and I think achieving accountability and building peace is the result of partnerships. There is no single stakeholder that can do everything – every stakeholder does a little, right?

When you work in the United Nations, [it’s] a political organization in [the] sense that it's made [up] of member states, and therefore the function, decisions, and implications of the work [are] very political, and you're working [within] that framework. When you are in civil society, you [might] have less capacity to influence, or you have to work very, very hard to build your capacity to influence, but you have more freedom and independence. In many countries, we work very closely with the United Nations systems, and we complement each other because what we do as a single set international organization, they might not be able to do. [Similarly], they may be able to do things that we cannot.

When I was working with the UN, I knew ICTJ, and I was working as a partner with ICTJ. So when I moved to ICTJ, I continued my relationship with the UNDP, but also the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Secretariat, and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). There are different agencies of the UN that are on the peacebuilding front and some others that are usual partners for [our] work.

You have extensive global experience in assisting victims of conflict, whether in Albania, Nepal, or Sierra Leone. How does knowledge of these various contexts inform your current role, and how have you seen the global dynamics of justice change along the way?

Having worked in almost all continents, in different conflicts, and in different contexts, in which sometimes it was a post-conflict situation like in Sierra Leone [and other] times active conflicts like [in] Nepal or Colombia, you see different things. You see that every context is very different, and in order to be successful, you have to come up with solutions that are rooted in the knowledge of [these] contexts, and that really respond to local needs and local dynamics. And that only comes from a very deep understanding of what's going on in that particular country, which can only [come from] working with local partners, listening to them, and understanding the conflict. So you really need to understand and invest time in those countries to be able to understand what's going on.

On the other hand, you see that when it comes to the human side, human suffering is very, very similar everywhere you work. You know that families of the disappeared share the same struggle and trauma all over the world, no matter where they are. People who have lost property and got displaced or had to flee, they say human experiences of suffering and injustice [are] very similar, and at the bottom line, their demands are very similar. They want to recover their dignity. They want to recover their life projects. They want to know the truth of what happened, and why it happened to them. So you see there are very, very context-specific conversations. But there is a global dynamic that is related to human suffering and injustice that is very similar in every country. So I think balancing those is important to continue working in the global sphere.

The development and maintenance of democratic systems is a focal point of ICTJ’s mission. How does the push for redressing widespread human rights violations align with the need for more political openness and transparency?

I think it's totally related. I think we've produced, very recently, a number of reports in which we argue that justice and accountability for massive human rights violations play a key role in developing sustainable development, sustainable peace, and building democracy. Then there is a connection in how trials, truth commissions, [and] reforms have contributed to sustainable development. It's not my opinion – we have data that demonstrates and shows that, and I can show you the reports. But I think more and more, it's being recognized that transitional justice plays a role as one strategic tool to build peace and development in a sustainable way.

For us, our approach when we work is really a long-term goal. It’s not checking the box on small wins, which are important. It’s also advancing a process that by definition is a long-term process – sometimes even a generational process – which is building sustainable peace and addressing the root causes of conflict with a justice perspective. So you cannot do that in a day. And, that's why the connection with development agendas and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is very, very important. We've put a lot of emphasis in the last few years on demonstrating and showing the connections with SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 5 (gender equality), and how transitional justice can contribute to [advancing and achieving] those goals.

Varada spoke with Travesí on July 10, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.