As initiators of change, the ICTJ works with victims and survivors of massive human rights violations to hold those responsible to account.
Virginie Ladisch is a senior expert in truth seeking and civic engagement at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). They “work side by side with victims to obtain acknowledgement and redress for massive human rights violations, hold those responsible to account, reform and build democratic institutions, and prevent the recurrence of violence or repression.”
What is your background regarding racial and social justice, multi diversity, multiculturalism?
My mother is French. My father is German, and I was born in the United States. So, from a really young age, I've had multiple languages, multiple nationalities.
Then in college, I studied political science and started learning more and more about recent politics in Latin America, the involvement of the US (often not very positive in many of the civil wars), and what was being done to deal with the consequences of those wars through different truth commissions that were happening in Chile and Guatemala.
In my junior year of college, I read about a mother who had lost her son at the hands of the South African apartheid regime. And she said about the truth commission that was going on there, "I just want to know who to forgive." But it just really intrigued me. And it set me then on this path to really understand a bit more how people, how countries, deal with the legacy of mass atrocity.
After college, I got a fellowship for a year that allowed me to study reconciliation in Guatemala and in South Africa.
And so, a truth commission was developed as a creative approach to start to get answers for the families of victims, to start to also uncover what allowed these violations to happen, what were the systems in place, the government loopholes or areas that allowed these violations to occur?
So, as I said, there were several truth commissions around the world. South Africa was the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have its public hearings be broadcast on national television, radio.
The thinking was that everyone needed to know what happened during apartheid, everyone needed to face these facts. And it was really important that it be brought into the home of every South African.
Before that, the political context had been perhaps more tricky or complicated in Chile or Argentina and other contexts. So, they were often done behind closed doors. But South Africa really revolutionized this approach, which I think is why if people have heard of a truth commission, they often may have only heard of South Africa.
When the apartheid regime [in South Africa] transitioned to the democratically elected ANC, they made a condition that they would leave office and give up arms only on the condition that the ANC would not hold them criminally responsible for what happened.
How many truth and reconciliation commissions are there around the globe?
There have been over 40.
Oh, there are templates that they use? How do we get 40 organizations around the world doing this?
There are general guidelines and best practices. But what's really important is there is no one model, because the beauty of a truth commission is that it's not a legal body, it's ad hoc, it's established to meet the needs of that particular context.
But if you look at our website, we actually have lots of publications that provide guidance and support on the general outline.
So, there's certain elements that have been included in past truth commissions and those who are looking to start a truth commission can look to that, they don't have to reinvent the wheel. But then there's a lot of creativity and how you engage with the public, how you engage with the victims. And so that's the part that we really encourage different countries to do what's best for them and for their context.
The focus is on victims, to provide a platform for the stories. Some truth commissions have included a focus on perpetrators; South Africa did, that's quite unique. Others have since then, but there is this question of due process. There's a debate in truth commissions about whether or not people can name names without due process guarantees.
How did you get from Guatemala and South Africa to the ICTJ?
Columbia had a program where I could look at transitional justice or these types of approaches. In my second year of graduate school I applied to be an intern at the ICTJ. Then a position opened up and I've been there ever since.
Why are you doing this?
In South Africa in 2000, the end of apartheid, there's still very segregated neighborhoods. This is the White bar, this is the Indian bar. This is the color bar. This is the Black bar. And it was discussed, it was known, and it was something that people were working on.
And then I came back to the United States to Washington, DC. This was a city I had lived in since I was age 12. But now, this is worse than South Africa. And we don't talk about it.
The glorious land that you left, when you went away, you came back with new eyes and said, "Oh, it's not just in Venezuela and South Africa that we have these disparities."
I had looked at it more from an international perspective, foreign policy, and I hadn't been as focused on domestic policy. I don't need to travel 24 hours to Uganda to look at human rights issues. I don't need to go and have jetlag to be in Tunisia, or the Gambia; right here in my own country there's so much work to be done.
There's a lot of democracy building abroad, without really recognizing how much we still need to do internally.
Why the Transitional Justice Center? What's the special meaning ascribed to transitional?
And the origin of that term comes from a transition from a period of authoritarian regime or dictatorship or civil war to a moment in which a country and its people are ready to turn the page and have a new beginning.
It signals that our approaches are best put into practice when there's some opening – some transition – from a period in which there were oppression, human rights violations, to then to a change in power as there was in South Africa, or some opening to some cracks in the regime.
Is there a commonality you've seen among the cities, commissions, governments, whatever word that enables them to say, "Now is the moment to notch this thing"?
It's important that there be a demand from those that are impacted, so an organized group of victims and advocates that are working with them, for them. Some shift in public awareness or some potential to change a policy that's been in place for a long time. In the US, for example, since the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020.
Some government involvement, some power involvement, some organized group of victims, some ally who's willing to be the catalyst and motivated to be the catalyst, some pivotal issue, like the George Floyd murder that lights the match.
In Colombia, it was the peace agreement. The 50-year-long war with the FARC came to a stalemate, and the government and the leading party of the FARC were in negotiations.
In Canada, the truth commission was really spurred on by the National Chief, Phil Fontaine at the time, publicly speaking on TV, saying that he was a survivor of residential school and that he'd been sexually abused.
I just want to pause because we've had a lot of discussion internally about victims versus survivors. In Canada it's survivors, but in Uganda and in the Gambia, they want to be called victims because they say, I haven't survived yet. And also, victim has a legal ramification, if you are a victim, your rights have been violated, and you are owed repair.
Since you're not re-traumatizing the victims, you yourself don't have to go through that experience. And so, you stay in hope. Is that in a nutshell?
I stay in the hope. You have to be a bit an optimist to do this work, because otherwise you'll give up, but when there's injustice, there's also more people who are fighting that injustice than are committing it.
Do you believe in the term evil? Do you think there are evil deeds? Would you use that word, and would you apply that word to people? Do you believe there are evil people?
It's not a word I use often. But I think there are evil deeds. Yes, I think there are some things that are so horrendous that that term qualifies. I'm more reluctant to say there are evil people, because I think all of us have the capacity for good or evil.
It's really important that we take a power and a structure analysis to understand harms and violations. And that sometimes people are caught up in those structures. Some have more responsibility, I'm not at all absolving that responsibility. But I think it's not so productive to say, "Oh, he's evil, and we just need to get rid of that person. And then everything would be fine." It's not so simple.
And I think like, if we again turn to the United States, and the example of lynchings, there were 2000 plus people that witnessed the lynchings. And it was families. And so, it wasn't just the one person who shot the bullet or who tied the rope or who you could say that one person is evil. It was the whole context, the whole society.
You have witnessed extreme courage, courage that some of us wonder if we would ever have. Could you give an example?
This group of young girls were kidnapped and taken into captivity by Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda and forced to go fight, to marry other commanders. Part of the LRA's project was to create the pure Acholi race. And finally being able to escape or be released, and then coming back to their homes and to their communities.
Many of them were rejected, found to be complicit with the LRA, held responsible for the violations that the townspeople suffered at the hands of the LRA, forgetting that these women were abducted, they didn't sign up for this, this wasn't their choice.
In the face of the stigma and rejection that many of these women and their children suffered, one woman, Suzie has gone on to lead women in helping them stand up for their rights. She said to me, "No, I'm not a victim. I'm a survivor. I'm an advocate. And I'm here now to help others get to the same position."
Cassandra is from Kenya. And during the post-election violence there, she was a victim of rape and conceived a child of that rape. She didn't stay silent in her corner, she formed a group of survivors to support each other. This group has grown and grown and grown.
What's in common about these women who choose to defy stigma, defy convention, and speak up and out? Is there anything that you've noticed?
Tremendous courage, but I also think, conviction that they're doing this not just for themselves, but for their children, for their peers, for other women like them.
And also, I think when you've suffered so much, there's sometimes a sense, what more could I lose?
In the United States, I've heard of the Maryland Lynching committee. I've heard of a reparations commission in California, and a couple others. I think in New Jersey, there was one. I don't know if you equate reparations with your work, is that included in those commissions in your work?
There's HR 40, which is at the federal level, has been this legislation calling for reparations commission. That's been a proposal in Congress that the late John Conyers would present every year for 30 years, and that's been taken over by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, which calls so for a national commission that will look at reparations.
Evanston, Illinois was one of the first to provide reparations at the city level for housing discrimination, using the proceeds from marijuana tax. There's a lot happening in Providence, Rhode Island, and in Michigan.
There's nothing in the south.
Groups from the South have been exchanging with groups from the north, from the east, and really supporting each other sharing strategies, which is also really important when you do this work, it can feel overwhelming or isolating.
Anyone who wants to get in touch with you or the center, how can they reach you?
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. For the center, you can look up our website, which is www.ictj.org.
Senior Expert in Truth Seeking and Civic Engagement, International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)
Virginie currently leads ICTJ’s work in the United States and Australia, as well as the Children and Youth program. She has provided guidance and technical expertise to a wide range of transitional justice approaches across the globe, including in Canada, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Liberia, The Gambia, Kenya, Nepal, Tunisia, and Uganda. Across all her work, Ladisch focuses on how engaging citizens—particularly youth—in transitional justice processes can serve to catalyze broader public debate and ongoing civic activism. Committed to listening to survivors and problem solving with them to advance effective responses, Ladisch seeks to open spaces for more inclusive participation in policy and programming discussions.
Prior to joining ICTJ, Ladisch was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for independent research, during which she carried out extensive fieldwork on truth commissions and reconciliation in South Africa and Guatemala. Her work has been published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, the Journal of Public and International Affairs, the Cyprus Review, and the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. Virginie holds an M.A. in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University and a B.A. in Political Science from Haverford College.
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