Genocide, torture, sexual violence and displacement – periods of intense conflicts are often associated with such grave human rights violations and other atrocities. These can continue to affect victims and survivors after the conflict has formally ended. Traumatic events do not only affect those who have experienced the direct violence themselves, but can also be passed on from generation to generation, and thus disrupt community structures in a lasting way.
Especially when coupled with impunity or denial, experiences of violence can add up to feelings of marginalization and exclusion, and can themselves become a push factor for committing additional forms of violence. Similarly, violence-related displacement often leads to further conflicts later on when residents try to return to their lands. How is it possible to interrupt such cycles of violence?
With its peacebuilding efforts around the globe, forumZFD contributes to transforming past experiences of violence and their effects in a sustainable and comprehensive way. Together with local partners, forumZFD’s projects address the root causes of violent conflict and contribute to healing and reconciliation. Peace and conflict researchers often refer to such approaches as “Dealing with the Past” or “Transitional Justice”. While most people have a general understanding of Dealing with the Past, the term Transitional Justice can be misunderstood. It is sometimes narrowly interpreted as criminal justice achieved through the prosecution of violent acts. Instead, Transitional Justice is based on a broader understanding of justice and peace that also encompasses the restoration of relationships and the memorialization of mass violence.
Germany is often cited as an example
“Compared to the international discussion, the debate in Germany is simultaneously one step ahead and one step behind”, writes peace and conflict researcher Susanne Buckley-Zistel. She explains that on the one hand, transitional justice has long been accepted as one of the key approaches applied by German peacebuilding organizations. On the other hand, however, it does not receive the same attention in German peace research as it does in other countries.
This is surprising, given the fact that Germany is one of the most frequently cited examples in international literature on the subject. There is a great deal of research on how the Holocaust and the crimes of the Nazi regime were dealt with in Germany. This included not only the prosecution of the perpetrators – for example in the Nuremberg Trials – but also monetary reparations paid out to victims and survivors, memorialization of the violence committed, and educational reforms. The example of Germany reflectsthe diversity of fields of action that constitute Dealing with the Past and Transitional Justice underline the dimension of the task: coming to terms with the diverse experiences of war and violence is an enormous challenge in practice.
This challenge was a central topic at a recent conference on Transitional Justice in the Philippines, which was organized by forumZFD and GIZ-CPS. Around 200 representatives of local and international organizations, government agencies and civil society participated in the conference. Together they discussed the question of how a just and lasting peace can be achieved in the Bangsamoro. This region in the south of the Philippines has been the scene of armed conflict between government troops and the Muslim independence movement for decades.
The roots of the violent conflict can be traced back centuries and are closely linked to colonization, exclusionary policies targeting Muslim communities, and their displacement from their ancestral lands. Since 1969, the conflict is estimated to have claimed the lives of over 120,000 people and displaced millions. In 2014, the parties to the conflict finally signed the long-awaited peace treaty. This also laid the foundation for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
The fact that the region received extensive rights of self-government is in itself a form of compensation for centuries of denial of this right. But more is needed for a lasting peace. The establishment of a “Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission” was an integral part of the peace agreement, thus underlining the importance that is attached to this issue also by the parties to the conflict. In 2016, the commission presented a report with over 90 recommendations, including on reparations, prosecution and institutional reforms.
Superficial approaches cannot bring reconciliation
However, comprehensive implementation continues to lag behind. On a formal level, Transitional Justice has a prominent place in the peace agreement and initial steps were taken to develop programs by the regional government. However, in reality, most experiences of violence remain unaddressed. Even years after the fighting, those affected feel left alone to deal with the consequences of the violence, many atrocities remain undocumented and those responsible have not been held accountable. The example of the Bangsamoro therefore also shows that it is not enough to simply create the formal basis for Transitional Justice at the institutional level.
This can also be observed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, the fighting dates back much longer: in 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement formally ended the war. But until today, the state continues to be in what can be considered as a frozen conflict.
One reason for this is that mechanisms that are meant to address the atrocities committed are largely limited to the prosecution of perpetrators. Other mechanisms, such as providing reparations, establishing the truth, memorialization, and guarantees of non-repetition are neglected. “With this approach, Transitional Justice had only a partial outreach – it remained in the courtrooms”, says Lejla Gačanica, legal expert and forumZFD partner. “This leaves the social space susceptible to myths, disputes and manipulations of war narratives”. As a result, ethnocentric and one-sided war narratives continue to be present in the public space, in media and in political discourse.
For example, until today – twenty-seven years after the war – murals glorifying convicted war criminals and hate speech can still be seen on public buildings and streets around Bosnia and Herzegovina. And despite the passing of many verdicts which established the facts of the war crimes in court rooms, practices of historical revisionism continue. Therefore, forumZFD and its partner organization “TRIAL International” have advocated for a legal prohibition of the denial of genocide, the Holocaust, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – with success: In July 2021, such a law came into effect in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “This is an important step forward”, says Sunita Dautbegović-Bošnjaković, project manager at forumZFD in Sarajevo, adding, “However, there still needs to be court practice and implementation of this legislation. This is why a strong raising of awareness regarding this matter is still crucial.” Together with "TRIAL International" and the "Network for Peace Building", forumZFD thus continues to engage all relevant stakeholders to discuss the long-term consequences of the continuous glorification of war criminals.
The goal is social change
As can be seen from the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Transitional Justice must not be limited to establishing formal responsibility for war crimes. Rather, there needs to be a comprehensive approach that involves society as a whole. There needs to be a public consciousness of the unacceptability of the violent acts committed. And there needs to be a shared commitment in society to prevent such harm from being repeated.
In some countries, civil society actors therefore prefer to speak of “Dealing with the Past” instead of “Transitional Justice”, as this term highlights even more the necessary transformation of society. forumZFD advances such a comprehensive approach to addressing past violence that does not only focus on political or judicial reforms, but works towards changing attitudes, behaviors, and relationships.
One example of this effort can be found in Lebanon. Here it becomes particularly apparent that civil society initiatives can make a difference even in the absence of state-led transitional justice processes. Rather than prosecuting perpetrators as was done in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the period after the civil war in Lebanon was characterized by what many call a “state-sponsored amnesia”. This included a general amnesty law for war crimes passed in 1991. As a result, the countless human rights violations committed during the civil war from 1975 to 1990 remain unaddressed and Lebanon has continued to witness recurring episodes of violence, including armed clashes and politically motivated assassinations. Much-needed institutional reforms have not been tackled until today, and there have been hardly any efforts on the part of politicians to bring about accountability, justice and reconciliation.
Civil society takes the initiative
However, this does not stop civil society actors from engaging in dealing with the past processes on their own: For example, they document the crimes committed, support victims and initiate dialogue and reconciliation. forumZFD supports in some of these efforts. The work focuses on how memories of the war continue to affect conflict dynamics in society – and what each and every one can contribute to change them.
In one project in Lebanon, a training series titled “Memory of War”, forumZFD brings together teachers, social workers, and volunteers to talk about the past, whether their own memories or those of their parents or communities. For many participants these sessions constitute a space to speak about the war for the first time. Here, they understand their personal positions, and hear about experiences from others, with the hope of coming to terms with both. One participant shared: “I am coming here to be heard, but also to listen to the others and see what we can do so we can get out of the shells that we are in since the war.”
This fear of talking about Lebanon’s civil war and of opening old wounds was also the starting point for the Oral History and documentary podcast “Maabar”. Wanting to understand the past, which still weighs heavy on the present, the creators interviewed more than 50 people across the country about their memories of the war. The 12-part series highlights how similar the experiences on all sides have been. Both initiatives invite participants to speak about the past, and with that conversation, overcome differences.
Whether in Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Philippines: All three examples show that overcoming the aftermath of armed conflict is a long-term task for society as a whole. There are many obstacles along the way. The challenges vary from country to country, and forumZFD and its partners adapt the working approaches to the needs on the ground. But despite their diversity, all these initiatives have a common goal: to lay the foundation for a just peace that goes beyond a mere formal end to hostilities and meaningfully transforms social relationships.
By Lena Muhs, Jenny Munro, Soha Fleyfil, and Sunita Dautbegović-Bošnjaković
GIZ-CPS is the civil peace service component of the German development agency “Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit”.
 “Maabar” means crossing in Arabic and has been used to refer to checkpoints during the Lebanese civil war.