Why transitional justice proponents say the field is important: The risk of leaving things as they are

Christalla Yakinthou

Continuing on from yesterday, generally, regardless of the focus, TJ presupposes that there is a significant risk in leaving things the way they are, after conflict.

War is the most extreme form of conflict: violent and usually protracted, where systematic torture, disappearance, rape, the death and/or physical and psychological harm of loved ones, forced displacement, and the loss of everything that represents safety are all commonplace occurrences. So it is understandable when entire communities retract into themselves after war.

Usually, to make sense of what happened and why, a shared narrative is built within societies over time. But when societies that were previously mixed, after conflict, become dramatically mono-identity or ideological – essentially when they hold only one perspective about who did what to whom, and why it was done – understandings of the past can become locked into a dangerous ‘we’ and ‘they’ narrative. The trust that one will not be harmed again is damaged, as well as the ability to empathise with people from the other group/s. This is a natural result of living through violent conflict. But what this often builds is a future based on continued suspicion and fear. Feelings of threat often spike at a number of points, but especially when communities hear each other talk about, or ‘perform a remembering act’ of the past and why it happened.

Feed into this vision core institutions that are broken or no longer exist at all. And by broken institutions, think about whether you would trust a police force or a military that was made up of people who had been responsible for policing concentration or detention camps, possibly where you had been detained, or which had held people you care about, or for disappearing people, for example, for torturing people. And a judiciary that either supported these things, or that is completely unable afterwards to handle enormously complex legal frameworks that sit around war crimes prosecutions, genocide cases, or crimes about humanity. Would you trust the law to protect you? Think about a civil service that either has no capacity to provide any kind of meaningful service to society because there is no funding or the infrastructure is damaged, or where the people in the institutions during the conflict were corrupt or abusive, and part of a corrupt and abusive system. Think about a society, perhaps like Lebanon, where every political group also had a paramilitary wing. After a conflict is officially over, what do you do with thousands, or hundreds of thousands of ex-combatants who were allied to a particular group but now are out of work? And competing demands, as in Rwanda, to both reintegrate former combatants but also provide support to their victims in a context of limited resources? Think about how to educate children that have already seen the worst there is to see in life, and who, in addition to that, have probably also lost their carers, several years of their education, and core years of their development. Think about a generation of children that have been targeted specifically during a conflict – and children are often a large segment of affected post-conflict populations.

In this context, then, cast your mind forward and think about a society after a conflict that has forcibly or voluntarily moved populations and redistributed them into ethnically homogenous groups, but where the former enemy community, comprised often of your former neighbours, is five, fifteen, fifty, a hundred kilometres away from you. There, just over there, those who did this to you, those who caused you to live through this.

And then you can understand both why there is such desire to stay within your own community, and why there is such danger in building and embedding narratives that places ‘all of them’ as perpetrators of violence against ‘all of us’, the innocent party.

And perhaps it’s actually easier to understand why communities remain antagonistic than to understand the drivers and the processes through which conflict can be transformed.

Addressing the past in a new way often means taking a great risk. Voices that cross the physical and psychological landscape of a conflict and try to understand the perspective of the other become critically important, for a number of reasons. Part of the work that I do, as a practitioner-academic, is to look at how victims’ and survivors’ groups and education processes are using stories of loss to open a dialogue about the past, and their efforts to build a safer and less polarised future. My work at the moment is focusing on how organisations in Bosnia are going about this in a broader context of increasing instability and mistrust between communities, on the post-authoritarian transition in Tunisia, on confronting a long legacy of selective silences about the past in Cyprus and Lebanon, and on how transitional justice is being brought into high-level negotiations and constitutional design processes. For more, read my research!




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