Jennifer Nelson 11': Helping Heal the Wounds of Apartheid

July 16, 2009

This summer I'm working for the International Center for Transitional Justice, an international non-governmental organization that helps countries emerging from repressive rule pursue accountability for past human rights abuses.

Jennifer Nelson '11

I'm based in the Cape Town, South Africa, office, where we're currently fighting for the right of victims to make representations in court before presidential pardons are granted to Apartheid-era perpetrators.

In 2007, then-President Thabo Mbeki formed a reference group to recommend for pardon individuals who had committed political crimes before June 16, 1999. He called this the "unfinished business" of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body assembled after the abolition of Apartheid to hear victims' stories and perpetrators' requests for amnesty from prosecution. Although he claimed the new pardons process would comply with the "principles, criteria and spirit" of the TRC process, the resulting actions threaten to diminish and undermine the impact of the TRC.

Allowing these individuals, who either did not participate in the TRC or were not granted amnesty, to be pardoned without allowing victims to tell their stories is a gross injustice to the amazing steps the TRC was able to take toward reconciliation in this country.

We have obtained a partial list of those recommended for pardon, and some of the crimes these individuals have been convicted of are unthinkable. In summer 2007, ICTJ and partner organizations filed suit in an effort to prevent the president from issuing these pardons until victims could participate in the process. This May, ICTJ won an interim interdict barring the president from executing these pardons until the case is finalized.

The government has filed an application for leave to appeal the interdict, which ICTJ is opposing. I am currently researching precedent and drafting a reply memo opposing the government's application for leave to appeal. Unfortunately, this case is likely to drag on for years.

Outside of the office I have been having an amazing time experiencing one of the most beautiful cities in the world. South Africa is an incredible country that is still transitioning from a very dark time. It's striking to imagine that Apartheid ended when I was 9 years old — within my lifetime. It's a country that still fiercely struggles with racism, poverty and disease, but is making steps forward every day. I'm so lucky to have had the chance to immerse myself in such a unique and inviting culture.

It's been a very busy eight weeks, and I can't believe I only have two more left! There's so much to be done. Thank you all, once again, for all your help and support. This fellowship is an invaluable asset to UVA Law, and I'm so deeply honored to be a part of it.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights