While in Burundi earlier this week, I learned of a report issued late in 2010 resulting from a popular consultation on transitional justice in the country. It is available on the website of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (French only, I think).
The report shows broad support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The government has pledged to create the institution this year. But there was much skepticism in Burundi about the government's determination to do so. There are also concerns about the independence of the commissioners who may be appointed to the commission.
There is also much talk of a criminal tribunal to deal with atrocities committed in Burundi. The consultation shows a broad acceptance of international participation, including judges from abroad, which will give the process greater credibility.
There are shortcomings to such a consultation, in that they ask rather sophisticated questions of a general public that is not particularly well-informed. It is a good, democratic initiative, but the findings are perhaps not as compelling as they might be. For example, when asked whether a majority of judges should be men, a large majority said yes. When asked if a majority of judges should be women, a large majority said yes. It will be hard to satisfy both of these criteria.
Burundi is positioning itself to be a laboratory for transitional justice. One of the prevailing ideas is that criminal justice should come after the work of the truth and reconciliation commission. I am not so sure about this. Certainly the experience in Sierra Leone shows the viability of a truth commission and an international criminal tribunal working at the same time, without major difficulty. Having the two operational at the same time actually helps the general public to understand the different functions of the institutions. But if one precedes the other, there will be uncertainty and doubts about the one that follows, and this will complicate the work of both institutions.
Burundi has waited long enough for justice. Postponing criminal prosecution so that a truth commission can operated may not be such a wise move.