2011: Sofia Platform: Session 3: The Role of Civil Society

Sofia Platform: Transitional Justice

3-4 December 2011

Session 3: The Role of Civil Society

The third panel discussion of the “Sofia Platform: Transitional Justice” conference focused on the judiciary’s role in the transition to a democratic system of government.

Dragomir Yordanov from the Bulgarian Institute of Justice described the stages of a totalitarian legal system’s transformation into a modern justice system, as experienced by Bulgaria – the most important steps were the drafting of a new Constitution in 1991, restructuring the judiciary to remove the possibility of direct political interference and increasing its efficiency to meet public expectations of proper observation of human rights.

The concept of justice is interpreted as enforcement of laws, but beyond this legal sense it also carries the meaning of a factor that creates the public perception that things are as they should be, Bulgarian judge Nelly Kutzkova said. The countries of North Africa and the Middle East face a very serious process of transition during which it will be crucial to comply with internationally established standards of justice as a source of legitimacy in establishing democracy and justice, Kutzkova said.

The absence of treason trials against representatives of the totalitarian regime can have serious political repercussions and had a direct bearing on the democratic transition in Bulgaria, Ivanka Ivanova from Open Society Institute – Sofia said. There can be no simple answers, Ivanova said. If there was one lesson to be learnt from the Bulgarian experience, it was that the issue of efficiency in the criminal justice system needed to be tackled early on, at the very start of the transition to democracy.

“I want you to really act as a bridge between us and the western civilisation,” the deputy chief of the Egyptian Supreme Court, Ahmed Makky, told the Bulgarian hosts, before underlining that Egypt’s knowledge of independence came from the European example. In his address, he supported the thesis that the basis of a modern and well-functioning judiciary is to protect the interests and rights of citizens, as well as gaining full political independence.

The judiciary is one of the main sources of attaining justice in transition; it is the foundation of civil peace, according to Iyad Chaouchi, a judge on the Supreme Court of Cassation of Tunisia. Any decision about the future has to arise from a proper attitude towards the past, in which sentimentality can have no place, he said. Chaouchi then described the efforts to fight corruption in the Tunisian judiciary, a process that is still in its infancy.

It is important to recognise that dictatorial regimes use the judiciary to establish and maintain authoritarian practices, Taoufik Ouanes, a senior legal adviser and professor of law from Tunisia, said. One of the challenges of transition was restoring people public trust in the judicial system, which required bold measures, but also an individual approach tailored to the specifics of each revolution, he said. Ouanes emphasised that the Arab Spring revolutions needed to be supported by an independent judiciary, otherwise the transition process could have adverse consequences on the evolution of those countries.

A common conclusion of the participants in the panel discussion was that societies must know their past in order to firmly close the door on it and begin building their future.