Local versus global approaches to transitional justice

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Local versus global approaches to transitional justice

Transitional justice is practiced at multiple levels - international, regional, national, and local/community. How do practitioners deal with the tensions between the different approaches to transitional justice advocated at each of these levels, from the focus on criminal accountability at the international level to the focus on community rebuilding, at times through "traditional" practices, at the local level?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

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TJ as an evolving field

Many thanks to all who have joined this extended online discussion on transitional justice.

The potential tension between international and local approaches to transitional justice has attracted significant interest from practitioners and scholars, particularly since the field's focus has shifted away from transitions from authoritarianism to democracy towards transitions from conflict to peace over the past decade.

The tension has manifested in a number of debates, including concerning the degree of impunity that is acceptable in order to bring parties in conflict to the negotiating table (the so-called peace versus justice debate), the extent to which putatively "universalist" principles (read human rights) can respond to the needs and specificities of very different conflict/postconflict societies, and the possibility of reconciling retributive justice with restorative justice in a culturally appropriate manner. Some have argued that the emphasis placed on individual criminal accountability by international actors is a western imposition and even a form of neocolonialism.

These and related debates continue, but some consensus appears to have emerged that transitional justice processes cannot be "one size fits all" and must be context-specific. It has been argued that because transitional justice is still a young and evolving field, as well as a deeply contested one, each new context in which it is discussed and implemented provides opportunity for developing and changing transitional justice practice.

Please share your approaches to dealing with the various tensions created by the interaction of the multiple levels at which transitional justice operates.

the golden rule

Dear Jasmina,

the golden rule to create any new "bill" successfully, is to extract it from local traditions and customs....then, it will be easy to apply it, instead of "enforce" it. I do not like the word "enforcement" , it seems violent to me. Transitional justice procedures, are always based on a new "law", and that law will certainly vary from a field of praxis to another depending of the culture of each state.


Local approaches Burundi

I am glad you brought up the issue of local approaches to TJ, as this is what I see here in Burundi being a great chance to the whole process. While the official process has been dragging on for 14 years with finally the law on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being adopted by parliament last month- a heavily contested law due to many unclarities - local initatives have already been mushrooming since the civil war, ahead of the official development.

Some challenges: the division of approaches and lack of bridgebuilders to unite them and appreciate the diverse offers. On the one hand, the "reconciliation" approach that focuses on the need to confront victims and offenders, search for the truth, find meaning, and to rebuild the community as a whole, ideas which can be connected with "restaurative justice". On the other hand, a psychosocial approach, focusing on healing, social, economic support, therapy and compensation. Finally, the justice approach focusing on the need to bring offenders to court, acknowledge international standards of law, and promote human rights. It is my observation, that these approaches complement each other very well, but that organisations do not realise that, but compete, which weakens their voice. 

The always changing conflict context is another challenge. In Burundi, the conflict drivers are still effective, and the peace contract made in Arusha has already been fragilised with the elections in 2010. Last year, the Land commission, charged to reconcile refugees and residents on land matters, has been strengthened  by law in its new approach to priviledge refugees, and soon there will be a land court excluding alternative ways of seeking justice. Mediated conflict settlements approved by the commission itself, are being reopened years after their conclusion, and many observers describe the issue of land as most alerting danger to the whole peace process.

The official TJ process itself is often seen as a challenge. Actually, government has to be praised for having adopted the law, as many Burundians are hoping to get to know at least the minimum of the truth . But the process is somehow intransparent: two bills had been set up, the more unspecific, simplified, open one being adopted. An open dialogue on the law was encouraged by government, with many institutions sending in suggestions for amendments - but they have not been taken into account. People are used to institutions and commissions being tools for political manipulation, and so they look at the truth commission with scepticism. 

The multitude of initiatives - victims organisation protecting mass graves from being run over by infrastructure projects, churches and NGOs promoting dialogues between victims and offenders and documenting local history, journalists bringing out films or special topics in magazines on the past events from different perspectives, human rights defenders making aware of the consequences of impunity, civil war "heros" that saved the lives of their friends from the other ethnic group are presented as role models for today's population - shows another direction for the process: bottom up, decentralized. A Truth Commission for every hill.

Maybe this could even open up new ways to approach the "hard to reach" groups as rebel leaders, military and ex-government, as the connections at local level go all the way up via the channel of connectors such as churches or "colline natal"=the hill of origin. But they take time and their very own dynamics need to be promoted by outsiders.

Another idea which seems to have found consensus in the Burundian society after long discussions and research, is use the restaurative justice approach at grass root level and the punitive approach for the top decision making level. The population sees the need to at least qualify the crimes in order to know if for example 1972 was a massacre or an attempted genocide. They acknowledge the need to end impunity and to reform, most of all, the justice sector. But this is the problem: the politically manipulated justice sector is to be reformed by a transitional justice which now seems to also become object of manipulation of politics. This is maybe a point where local dynamics create their own limits and where international interference should offer an alternative- for the future, for the  time after the Truth Commission.

Concluding, in a fragile divided country with conflict drivers still being effective, local approaches should be mapped, and taken as starting points and models for the national process and not only at grassroot level. International donors, NGOs and agencies should act with a lot of sensitivity and take enough time to just be there and observe, identifying exactly where they can come in meaningfully and how.

picture below: Victim and offender dialogue on their story from the past with community listening, from the eastern region of Burundi.

taking the time

I think the end of the last post hit on something crucial -"International donors, NGOs and agencies should act with a lot of sensitivity and take enough time to just be there and observe, identifying exactly where they can come in meaningfully and how."  

This is exactly right, but it means changing how all these actors do things.  Funding especially would have to change to allow people to come an observe closely, rather than spending a month and then designing a project because they have a two year deadline in which to show "results".  It would mean working more closely among academic disciplines and just sitting with people, watching rather than doing.  How can international donors, NGOs and agencies contribute to the initiatives that bubble up everywhere from the bottom, or make them more feasible, or at least not get in the way?


You can't buy reconciliation

Naomi, I completely agree. The 'peace villages' set up by UNHCR in Burundi for returning refugees who could not reclaim their land for whatever reason are a typical example of this. Set up at great expense, The UN used the language of reconciliation for their rationale in setting them up. They were lauded as places where people of different ethnicity could live together. But in reality research we did showed that people living in these villages felt marginalised and forgotten. They were achieving the opposite.


This example is a stark contrast to the kinds of initiatives outlined by KCaesar. 

I think that the problem here is the huge dilemma that is created by the fact that the international community generally comes with money - and therefore lands itself a seat at the table. This doesn't answer your question - and of course there are no easy answers - but I think that having an honest discussion about the role of funding is certainly part of the answer. 


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taking the time

Thank you for developping these ideas and thinking further ahead. Yes, you are right, a transformation of the way how projects are funded and how donors work, would greatly increase the possibilites for grassroot initiatives in the country. Especially rethinking time frames, mandats, distribution of roles, the way how accountability issues are handled... would help . Challenges are - in my opinionn - most of all the political will to do so. Maybe the Paris Declaration was already a step, but now new funding mechanisms such as crowd funding or public private partnerships could be more explored. Some smaller western NGOs sometimes offer small funds to the same organisation over a longer period of time and closely accompanying these projects, which seems to work well. As another challenge is to identify the "good" projects and then to make sure the money actually helps. Especially dealing with the rapid changes in the country may be another point to look at, it demands a lot of flexibility.

Looking at it from that angle, microcredit and income generation activites promoting mobilization of local ressources should flank peace and reconciliation activities, especially if they also build up social cohesion (former enemies putting their money together to prepare for a larger investment). We have good experiences with that, especially regarding land conflicts. It would also be useful to try linking these well working local grassroot organisations with well working organisations at national level which have an interest in it - to foster advocacy to bring about change at the structural level, and to identify possible local donors to create win-win linkages within the top and bottom level of society. In Burundi, the largest brewery has now become quite known for donating large sums of money for cultural projects which also serve as PR activity for them. So why not imagine other Burundian companies coming in to promote for instance the construction of local mediation centres in the regions where many of their customers live?

The peace villages mentioned below are really showing some problems. When we visited one in the south of the country, Makamba Province, we could see with our own eyes and were informed, that these villagers do not have a source of income as there were no plots for cultivation foreseen behind their houses, and due to unemployment, small crime, prostitution and alcohol abuse were some very common symptoms.

other local kinds of initiatives

Before we close I wanted to mention a few things that seem to have been useful local tactics from Guatemala.  There have been community based efforts to create memorials using both Catholic and Mayan symbols and ceremonies, often at the place where massacres happened.  The thing that makes these things resonate seems to be that they are grassroots efforts, not state-initiated memorials. The government can come in later to provide some money to maintain them.  Another thing that seems to be useful is the creation of local community museums to tell the story of what happened and -- and this is important-- the richness of life before people were displaced/killed/forced to leave.  So older community traditions and skills, the strength of resistance to attacks on the community, how people survived the years of war are as important as the nature of the repression, killings, and other crimes.  People saw this as a way of passing on the story to future generations.  In addition, in other parts of this dialogue people talked about community mapping, which has also been used.

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