The implementation of transitional justice in Colombia will guide other peace processes around the world
A new book by the International Center for Transitional Justice includes a chapter on Colombia written by two of our researchers.
NEW YORK, May 16, 2017—What hope is there for justice for victims of atrocities in profoundly fractured societies, where systems of government have broken down and social and political divisions run deep? What is the role of transitional justice in forging peace in countries like Colombia, after decades of conflict? Or in countries like Tunisia after years of repression and corrosive corruption?
A new book by the International Center for Transitional Justice, titled Justice Mosaics: How Context Shapes Transitional Justice in Fractured Societies, examines the challenges of responding to massive human rights violations in such different and difficult circumstances. It explores how societies in times of transition must adapt transitional justice in different ways. In particular, it illuminates how various factors unique to each country — like political settlements and social and economic problems — can impact the design and implementation of transitional justice.
The aim of the book is to help policy makers, practitioners, and academics to better read each context and understand how different factors come together to facilitate or undermine efforts to achieve transitional justice at a given time.
“Societies faced with the task of responding to past injustices vary greatly,” explains Roger Duthie, ICTJ Director of Research and co-editor of the book. “They differ in terms of the type of transition they are undergoing, their institutional and political fragility, and their social and economic development. All of this has important implications for the relevance and form of justice efforts.”
As the book explains, different factors in each country interact with each other to create unique opportunities and challenges for seeking justice. In such circumstances, where demands for peace and justice often intersect in difficult and challenging ways, what “can” be done, versus what “should” be done, depends very much on the specifics of the country. Understanding these factors and anticipating how they may interact with each other is part of doing justice in a sophisticated and artful way, rather than a dogmatic or formulaic way.
However, over the years the field of transitional justice has sometimes seemed to offer formulaic responses to vastly different contexts, which have been taken together as a universal “toolkit” or prescription to be applied wherever massive human rights had occurred. The formula generally integrated: truth seeking, reparations for victims, reform of abusive state institutions, and criminal trials.
“There are two problems with this kind of ‘formula.’ It leads to assumptions that the same approaches work the same way in very different places, so we end up with a kind of template approach. And we have governments who think they are doing the right thing by trying to tick all these boxes, when in reality very few countries — even developed ones — could manage to pull off the legal and administrative complexity of these processes successfully,” says Paul Seils, ICTJ Vice President and co-editor of the book.
As the book shows, in delicate transitional moments, political forces can easily sideline or quash victims’ demands for justice, while formulaic approaches, sometimes championed by the international community, can overwhelm weak institutions and lead to very limited results.
Adds Seils: “For our efforts to be effective, we must understand the true nature of each context. That takes a lot of work and skill. We need to identify the conditions for successful interventions and come up with the best ways to provide meaningful accountability and restore confidence in the rule of law. In short, we need customized solutions guided by principles, not templates applied without thought.”
The book insists that local needs and demands, understood in light of complex factors like political violence or widespread poverty, must shape transitional justice efforts.
For example, a chapter by Christine Bell looks at the challenge of designing and implementing transitional justice in societies emerging from conflict, in countries as diverse as Guatemala, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Uganda. She suggests that while the mechanisms most commonly associated with transitional justice — truth commissions, reparations programs, and criminal trials — may appear to be similar, each instance is actually very unique, because they connect differently with ongoing political bargaining in the society over access to power.
Another chapter by Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo analyzes the influence and growing popularity of “local transitional justice,” an approach that integrates local, traditional or customary practices, as opposed those led by government. As the authors explain, these practices can have the benefit of being seen by citizens as “more legitimate” and providing a “greater sense of identity.” But at the same time, they can raise concerns about due process, reinforce existing local power structures (sometimes to the detriment of less-powerful or marginal groups, like women and minorities), and struggle to address crimes that reach the level of atrocity.
The book’s 12 chapters cover such critical-to-understand factors as institutional contexts, political settlements, post-conflict and ongoing contexts, resilience, social change, local transitional justice, non-state armed groups, political parties, religious actors, and labor unions.
“Truly, one of the main challenges of transitional justice is in working under difficult circumstances to address victims’ rights and prevent violations from happening again,” says Duthie.
As the book sums up, the circumstances in which societies pursue justice for widespread abuses affect their objectives and the very processes that are developed to achieve them in profound ways, which those working in the field must understand and adapt to.