Huffpost WorldPost
David Tolbert Headshot

Absence of Accountability Key Obstacle to Democratic Transitions in Middle East and North Africa

Posted: Updated:

Three and a half years have passed since the commencement of the "Arab Spring," and the landscape in the region looks bleak in terms of respect for democracy and human rights, with only a few rays of light. Thus, the question arises: What are the obstacles to democratic transition in the Arab world? It is a critical question, as the lives and well-being of millions of people are at stake.

There are a number of key elements in any democratic transition: a just peace, economic development based on an equitable distribution of resources, and fair elections. However, simply holding elections is only one step in a democratic transition. Experience shows that a key issue in democratic transitions is addressing the human rights violations of the past.

I would argue that one of the key obstacles to democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa is a failure to ensure accountability for the abuses that sparked the "Arab Spring" in the first place. Or put another way, transitional justice has been paid lip service -- the failures to institute effective transitional justice mechanisms to address long-standing human rights grievances since the "Arab Spring" far outnumber the success stories.

The kind of meaningful reform that can help contribute to non-repetition of the indignities that led to these uprisings in the first place is actively resisted -- to varying degrees -- by powerful political players in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and most obviously Syria. In Tunisia the outlook is considerably less bleak.

In contrast to its regional counterparts, the Tunisian authorities initiated a broad societal consultation on transitional justice. This timely and extensive process was followed by the formation of a technical committee tasked with drafting a transitional justice law. While lacking in certain specific respects, the passage of the law constitutes a breakthrough because it ensures that transitional justice remains a component of the country's transition and gives advocates a foothold that can provide them additional opportunities to seek redress for violations of the past.

What, then, has gone awry with regard to accountability efforts in the Middle East and North Africa? Are there any lessons that can be learned just a few short years after these transformative uprisings unnerved long-standing regimes? Are there structural obstacles preventing transitional justice initiatives from taking root in this part of the world?

There are a number of complex and often interconnected reasons why the proponents of transitional justice have had so many challenges and so few successes in this region in the past few years. On a broad level, it comes as no surprise that instituting mechanisms that would hold perpetrators of systematic violations accountable is a highly contentious process, because it inevitably impacts a large number of powerful people previously connected to the regime.

Transitional justice measures are also operationally complex and require extensive human and financial resources, usually at a time when those very resources are at their scarcest. When those resources are not secured and the goals and priorities are not clearly established during the conceptual phase of the process, the result is, more often than not, ad-hoc measures that inevitably lead to stakeholder fatigue and the inability to meet operational demands or popular expectations.

Stakeholders in the newly constituted governments and in civil society have undertaken a multitude of initiatives with the stated goal of instituting accountability and ending impunity. Yet few, if any, of these efforts have discernibly contributed to those objectives.

The passage of Tunisia's transitional justice law presents a major breakthrough in a region where transitional justice victories have been scarce. However, it did not always seem like that law was going to pass. It was only after a deadlock between the government and the opposition threatened to bring the entire transitional arrangement to an end that the political adversaries put partisan quibbles aside long enough to pass the transitional justice law.

Beyond heads of state, the number of mid- and lower-level perpetrators that have been held criminally accountable for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of serious human rights violations in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya is miniscule. The majority of citizens in those countries have no more faith in the impartiality and earnestness of their country's judiciary than they had before the popular uprisings.

The historical, political, and social particularities of each country in question mean that a one-size-fits-all approach to transitional justice is unrealistic and undesirable. However, there are two factors in particular that can be discerned in the failed approach to transitional justice in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya: a lack of political will by powerful elements that have much to lose and little to gain from addressing past violations; and the arbitrary nature of the few reforms that have been proposed or implemented and the absence of an integrated vision for those reforms and what they are designed to achieve in the medium- and long-term.

However, we must be cognizant that reforms in general, and transitional justice measures in particular, are long-term processes. Again, this is reflected in the experiences of a significant number of Eastern European and Latin American countries that successfully transitioned from autocracy or dictatorship to functional democracy. Nonetheless, proponents of transitional justice must ensure that they plant the right seeds so that years from now their children may live in a more just and egalitarian society.