Transitional Justice - Strategies for conflict management and reconciliation

Brigid Inder and Anna von Gall

Strategies for conflict management and reconciliation, using the example of South Africa

In all armed conflicts, women and children – but also men – become victims of violence, especially sexualised violence. Ever since Bosnian and Croatian women first went before the cameras at the end of the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s to report on the appalling extent and excessive brutality of these crimes, much has happened in this area. Initially an international tribunal was set up to deal with war crimes in former Yugoslavia and this was gradually followed by others. At international level, wartime sexualised violence, as a war crime and crime against humanity, became the subject of international criminal law. With UN Resolution 1325, but especially with UN Resolution 1820, this was confirmed by the UN Security Council and became binding, at least with regard to women and children.

We know from studies and reports in many regions of the world that mass and group rapes are used against combatants as war strategies and can lead to excessive brutality and even murder. These crimes are committed by rebels and partisans, terrorists and also freedom fighters and government troops – i.e. regular members of the armed forces - it is mainly men who commit these crimes, but women are also partly involved..

The attacks often have a varied impact on the victims/survivors and affect women and men differently. Many are extremely traumatised without having any chance of coping with this trauma. Especially – but not exclusively – in the case of men there is the additional fact that they often were not just victims but also perpetrators – (cf. the results of the GWI expert talk of May 2011 on militarized masculinity in the context of war). The experience of war and the brutalization caused by such atrocities in any case leaves deep scars that continue to affect the individuals even in the post-conflict phase. Women and men, victims and perpetrators, the entire post-war society and social interaction are affected in very different ways. One aspect is the fact that women and children in their family surroundings particularly often experience domestic violence from returning combatants, fathers or other relatives. However, this is rarely taken into account when it comes to conflict management and coming to terms with the past.

In recent years, concepts of transitional justice for dealing with societies‘ conflict-ridden past have become increasingly important and are often emphasized by peace researchers and politicians as ways of securing peace.

By contrast, however, peace activists and feminist academics have criticised the fact that the way transitional justice instruments are negotiated and applied offers neither peace nor justice, especially to the survivors of sexualised violence and that this is an issue that is often neglected – as happens in some truth and reconciliation commissions.

This means that existential necessities such as medical care, material support, advice and the particular protection of women and girls who have experienced sexualised violence, also become non-issues. As a consequence there is no negotiation on how the perpetrators are to be handled.

Another controversial issue among the various experts, politicians and peace activists is the extent to which, in order to achieve social reconciliation, it is necessary to reveal past crimes and bring those responsible to justice in order to satisfy the former victims and restore their dignity.

Goal of the expert talk
After almost twenty years of discussing the problems and impact of wartime sexualised violence and people’s experience with truth and reconciliation commissions, and with national/international laws and their application, we would like to conduct a critical review of:

  • What has been achieved using the various transitional justice instruments and methods? 
  • What can they do? 
  • What potential do they offer for managing the experience of sexualised violence, on the one hand, and for prosecuting the perpetrators on the other? 
  • What is needed in order to achieve lasting social reconciliation and how can the point of view of survivors of sexualised violence be taken into account more adequately?
  • How can we achieve this?


The initial results and insights on these issues were delivered by the conference organised by the Gunda Werner Institute to mark the tenth anniversary of UN Res. 1325 in October 2010, and the expert talk on militarised masculinity in (post) conflict regions that took place in May 2011. This current expert talk takes up where these left off. Our partners in organising this meeting were the Women’s’ Security Council and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).

Gitti Hentschel

Pictures from the expert talk - Transitional Justice