Transformative Transitional Justice: How Old Tools Could Open New Avenues for Climate Justice

Transformative Transitional Justice: How Old Tools Could Open New Avenues for Climate Justice

April 2024 was the eleventh consecutive month to break heat records. With that news, the world is faced with the reality that global surface temperatures have already surpassed, even if temporarily, 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the benchmark agreed on in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Yet, the international climate negotiations continue to stall and the progress made so far on mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage is inadequate to deal with the severe climate impacts and harms being felt around the world.

The climate crisis is not the first time people have had to navigate complex tensions over responsibility for the past and future actions of states, corporations, and others. Transitional justice offers a wealth of ideas and tools to help us think 'outside the box' about climate action and resolve some of the impasses caused by focusing primarily on the international climate negotiations.

With its mainstream mechanisms – prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations, and institutional reforms – transitional justice has become a go-to solution for dealing with past harms, strengthening solidarity in the present, and laying the groundwork for a future with fewer harms in diverse transitional contexts. Moreover, lessons learned from more than three decades of practice, and from efforts across Africa in particular, have given rise to more transformative approaches to transitional justice, consisting of contextualized, bottom-up measures that address the historical and ongoing injustices that usually underpin harms.

These transformative approaches offer new avenues for facing the unequal global and local impacts of climate change in order to advance climate justice.

Climate-Focused Transitional Justice Mechanisms

As globally accepted measures in countries undergoing political transitions, we propose that transitional justice mechanisms present numerous and adaptable options for addressing climate harms.

Regarding prosecutions, individuals who purposefully took actions that resulted in significant intensification of climate harms could be tried before domestic, international, or hybrid courts. One example is the recent criminalization of actions 'comparable to ecocide' by the European Union. Alternatively

Turning to truth commissions, a commission could be created to establish historical and ongoing responsibilities for climate harms and provide a platform for those most affected to give testimony. A number of actors could run this commission, including a multilateral institution, a state or collection of states that are especially vulnerable to climate impacts, a civil society coalition, or even a community affected by climate harms. A truth commission for climate harms would create a historical record, foreground survivors' needs and demands, and serve as a novel basis for advocacy and awareness raising.

Ensuring the right to a remedy and reparation, international or regional reparations bodies and funding mechanisms – not to mention state and non-state high emitters themselves – could provide compensation and other forms of material redress to individuals and communities affected by climate harms. Symbolic reparations might include high emitters acknowledging responsibility in public statements, or affected communities supporting memorials and other memorialization initiatives for climate harms.

Institutional reforms, meanwhile, would create new or improved international and regional climate-related bodies and instruments to better curb harms and respond to affected communities, while increasing access to and transparency of public and private financing mechanisms. States could invest in permanent expert panels that conduct scoping studies on climate impacts and harms, while developing national climate legislation and establishing climate-responsive educational and capacity-building programs.

Transformative Transitional Justice for Climate Justice

Mainstream transitional justice mechanisms can be adapted to deal with climate harms in ways that respond to the specificities and needs of diverse contexts. These mechanisms have demonstrated certain short-comings in practice, however, particularly a top-down focus on the state as the primary driver of transitional justice, the side-lining of socioeconomic abuses and historical inequalities, and the prioritization of short-term and technicist solutions that avoid addressing the power structures that usually enable harms.

In combination with mainstream mechanisms, transformative transitional justice approaches are needed to begin redressing the compounded injustices of climate harms – that those historically least responsible for climate change are the most vulnerable to its impacts, while also being left out of global climate policy development.

Transformative transitional justice measures challenge existing power dynamics to acknowledge continuities between past and present injustices and to confront socioeconomic inequalities. While engaging with mainstream mechanisms, they go further to emphasize the added value of non-state processes, local agency and resources, bottom-up participation, and greater pluralism of ideas and actors.

One example is the South African apartheid survivors' movement, Khulumani, which advances 'people-driven transformation' by connecting community-based, multi-generational activities such as citizen journalism, arts workshops, and small-scale farming with national and international advocacy on reparations and accountability for apartheid abuses. Another is HIJOS, a pluralist, horizontally organized group representing children of those disappeared by Latin American dictatorships, which uses direct action performances to 'out' perpetrators and raise public awareness of past and ongoing abuses at the national and regional levels.

Transformative transitional justice to date has largely consisted of community-based and survivor-driven measures, which then promote the cross-pollination of ideas and practices across diverse stakeholders, identifying synergies among and linking actors from different sectors at the local, national, regional, and global levels to promote change.

Influenced by indigenous environmental ethics and mobilization, climate justice similarly aims to address and redress the systems of oppression and exploitation that climate change reveals. It encompasses and looks beyond the predominant focus on the international climate regime, state-centric interventions, and technicist, market-driven solutions.

Climate justice acknowledges the intersectional and intergenerational nature of climate harms, recognizes the value of local agency and resources in dealing with climate change, and advances transparent decision-making and fair resource distribution. It is characterized by inclusive, participatory, bottom-up, and contextualized processes, usually led by groups affected by climate harms in the majority world.

From Ideas to Practice

Given these overlaps between climate justice and transformative transitional justice, what would linking them look like in practice? Informed by the extent and diversity of climate harms on the African continent, we advocate for transitional justice measures that address those harms, led by the people most affected by them. These measures are designed to emphasize responsibility and redress for past harms, while fostering multi-actor solidarity for more equitable climate action going forward.

The measures we propose include, for example, a community-based truth commission, with testimony gathering and public hearings focused on those harmed, as well as voluntary open or closed hearings with representatives from entities that bear some form of responsibility for such harms. Another option is a memorialization initiative on the lives, communities, or land lost due to climate change. Developed using inclusive and participatory methods, these measures would draw on affected individuals and communities' knowledge, resources, and practices. They would serve as a new advocacy platform for internal organizing and external engagement, promoting the active participation of affected communities in the design of inclusive and contextually responsive climate policies and practices.

High-quality documentation, accessible knowledge production, and a comprehensive communications campaign, all co-designed with those affected by climate harms, would raise awareness of each measure. Targeted advocacy, informed by a broad-based stakeholder analysis, would ensure that these bottom-up processes draw engagement from relevant actors at the local, national, regional, and global levels, with the aim of scaling up their impact across borders.

As these would be the first transitional justice measures for climate harms, they would provide a precedent and set of experiences for different affected communities and other stakeholders to build on. Given that both transitional justice and climate justice are politicized fields, these measures will undoubtedly give rise to their own challenges and critiques. Yet, the lessons of transitional justice practice offer new avenues that will ignite debate and open novel paths to climate justice, as we face up to the meaning of surpassing the 1.5°C threshold.

This article was originally published by Justice in Conflict.

Senior Research Specialist

Dr. Jasmina Brankovic is the Senior Research Specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. With a focus on participatory methods, she conducts research on inequality and socioeconomic transformation, climate justice, gender in conflict, and civil society strategies for social change in transitional contexts.

Augustine Njamnshi

Augustine Njamnshi is the Political and Technical Affairs Chair of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.

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