Archive for ‘transitional justice’

June, 2014

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!



June, 2014

Confronting legacies of violence after conflict: What is Transitional Justice?

Dr Christalla Yakinthou

Transitional justice (TJ) is essentially a field that grew around a single question: how do you address the legacy of conflict-related violence and widespread human rights abuses? The first time that we as an international community really had to think about how to address the mess of war and the impact of genocide and what consequently became known as crimes against humanity was of course at the Nuremburg Trials in relation to the holocaust in the wake of World War Two. But the field itself really grew out of the efforts in Latin American countries coming out of authoritarian regimes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There, the human rights communities, lawyers, activists, families of victims and survivors in countries like Peru, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and Colombia began developing strategies to help victims of human rights abuses by the state. At the same time, they began thinking about the process of establishing, or re-establishing rights-respecting democratic structures. By the mid-1990s the concept of TJ had been popularized by high profile, high visibility efforts to confront the past, the most recognisable of course being the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a commission established in 1995 as part of South Africa’s transition to democracy, to deal with a limited number and range of Apartheid-era abuses. The idea that legacies of institutionalized violence needed to be addressed was consolidated over the 2000s, and the field continues to evolve, particularly in the wake of the Arab Revolutions.

What TJ does, essentially, is to suggest a number of concrete measures for dealing with legacies of conflict. While there is significant diversity within the field, most practitioners and theorists agree that some version of institutional reform, criminal justice, reparations, gender justice, and the documentation and acknowledgment of human rights violations as part of broader truth-seeking efforts are key to the repair of societies after deep trauma and widespread violations of people’s rights.

So in terms of the big picture, the motivation for transitional justice in post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies is political and societal transformation. There are institution-centred approaches, like judicial and police reform, criminal justice, reparations, and the documentation of human rights violations, which fit into truth-seeking efforts. And there are also less institution-focused approaches. Ideally, the two work hand in hand, but this is not always the case.

Less institution-focused approaches are looking at TJ as a tool for broader conflict transformation, and there is a great deal of debate over where the boundaries of TJ lie, and what sits outside. Some academics and practitioners are focusing on the value of TJ for countering denial and for promoting accountability: that is, if you think of Bosnia, the value of the Special Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to show that the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica was, in fact, a genocide. Or like the arguments of the Head of the SA TRC Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the value of TJ also lies in approaches that expand dialogue and create a space for marginalised voices. Or, for others, the goal of TJ processes is to transform victims so that they can become active, empowered citizens. And in many cases, the institutional and the individual are linked.

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