Plural Justice: A Holistic Approach to Transitional Justice and Peacebuilding

31 October 2018   ·   Lisa Laplante

Transitional justice processes often are too narrow and technocratic. Restorative and retributive justice alone may not lead to a stable peace, because it does not resolve underlying grievances that led to violent conflict. Therefore, transitional justice should incorporate conflict resolution, civil rights and participation, as well as socioeconomic and redistributive justice to address historical marginalization.

The field of Transitional Justice (TJ) rests on an assumption that apolitical, technocratic mechanisms like truth commissions, trials, and reparations will assure stable and sustainable peace in countries recovering from violent conflict. Yet, these measures fall short of true transformation: they do not adequately address poverty, social inequality and other socioeconomic issues that typically trouble those countries that adopt a TJ process. A narrow view of the problem leaves the vulnerable populations most impacted by violent conflict marginalized and disenfranchised as they continue to struggle to simply survive. As noted by the German government, these are the very conditions which create the “fertile ground” for violent extremism and the exploitation of ethnical, national and religious divisions.

In my own fieldwork I bore witness to how Peru’s TJ’s process failed to address the underlying socioeconomic conditions of its internal armed conflict (1980-2000). I would ask victims of Peru’s war about what was needed to “feel repaired.” What they told me rarely resembled the type of traditional legal damages that directly respond to harm from civil and political rights violations. Instead, they often sought measures that more closely resembled development-like projects. For example, an indigenous campesina, whose son had been disappeared, wanted farm animals to assure her family’s survival. 

Communities eligible for collective reparations would complain that the government was dressing up its poverty reduction measures as reparations – noting that the two measures arose out of separate legal obligations under human rights law. Their dissatisfaction and potential rejection of the government’s programming threatened to undermine the efforts of the TJ process, and even to reverse any positive impacts of the country’s truth commission and criminal trials.

Justice Continuum of Repair

In response to this situation, I developed what I call a “justice continuum of repair” which outlines a plural approach to justice in transitional justice settings. To better accommodate the broader range of expectations and needs of victims, it includes more than just reparative and retributive justice. The justice continuum includes restorative justice to mend local relations, equip communities with conflict resolution skills, and foster local reconciliation; civic justice to vindicate civil rights and cultivate active citizen participation in local democracies; and even socioeconomic and redistributive justice to address historical marginalization and structural inequalities suffered by the population before, during and after the conflict (subject to the TJ process). 

This plural view of justice responds to the critique that TJ fails to incorporate an explicit, comprehensive and thoughtful approach to addressing socioeconomic issues in its work. It guides policy to adopt a more coordinated approach to integrating development into a TJ process in order to better respond to a wider range of justice needs of victims.

Attending to Economic Impacts

When adopting a plural approach to justice, an assortment of possibilities arises:

First, a TJ process could more proactively include an analysis of the socioeconomic impacts of conflict as they occur at the individual, local and national levels. A truth commission might include a chapter that reveals how episodes of physical violence damage economies not only by destroying businesses, economic infrastructure, and human capital, but also by exacerbating the marginalization of and discrimination against certain vulnerable populations. With this focus, a TJ process creates a clear platform to address socioeconomic development with a special focus on vulnerable communities as part of its post-conflict recovery strategy. It could open the way to involving the private sector, since businesses not only play a role in conflict but also in the recovery process. To date, few TJ processes have achieved this inclusion, in part due to a failure to recognize their potential and important role.

With such a focus, the government could present administrative reparation plans that may include continuing education, job training and other measures that would not only respond to the individual harms of individuals but also benefit more inclusive economic growth and development. Simultaneously, this explicit policy would enable the public and political buy-in needed to better assure implementation.

Criminal trials could include a focus on economic crimes, prosecuting business leaders and fining corporations for corruption associated with the episode of political violence. These criminal prosecutions could lead to the recovery of stolen funds that ought to be redirected to reparations and development initiated by the TJ process.

If a truth commission’s mandate were to explicitly include directives to examine economic, social and cultural rights violations resulting from a conflict, it would provide victims and their advocates with firmer ground from which to pressure the government to respond to the recommendations of a truth commission, especially those related to development.

Expanding Approaches to Development

Second, A TJ policy that includes a socioeconomic justice focus should avoid a centralized, top-down process to development policy and programming. Decentralizing the decision-making process, such as through participatory budgeting, allows direct beneficiaries of development to be involved in all project phases. Such inclusion assures that government programs will more adequately respond to the needs of communities recovering from conflict and thus prevent new grievances. These are often based on communities feeling not just left out of a country’s economic prosperity, but also ignored and shut out from democratic processes. Notably, inclusion also helps towards assuring civic justice by empowering individuals to become active, rights-bearing citizens.  However, it requires more than developing human capital as simply a utilitarian means to improving the country’s economy. Instead, it should be guided by an approach like Amartya Sen’s capability theory.

Attending to Socioeconomic Preconditions

Third, a more ambitious TJ process should focus on any structural violence that predated a conflict as a separate human rights violation, to assure that socioeconomic justice addresses these historical inequalities. Administrative reparation programs would have more flexibility to respond to the actual needs and expectations of victims. At the same time, viewing these conditions through a legal lens would help to reframe collective reparation measures as redress for these prior conditions, thus mitigating frustration when the government mixes development into its redress measures. 

Such a rights framework could bring a narrative of accountability to development projects. Currently, these programs present themselves as forward-looking without recognizing how they also address the systematic failure of the government to provide basic human necessities. Acknowledging the mental and physical harm of systematic structural violence helps to dignify those who suffered from these chronic conditions.

This approach also protects activists pushing for economic and social equality from being viewed as subversive or a threat to the nation. Early advocates for changes to the economic model to assure economic dignity for all citizens were often called terrorists and were killed, disappeared and imprisoned for advocating for socioeconomic justice.  A TJ process can reframe these demands to be rights and not just political ideology. Reframing economic inequities through a human rights lens opens the door to challenge a country’s economic-political model and may be threatening to the economic elite and cause contention. However, as long as the principle of non-repetition remains a central aim of transitional justice, this reckoning may be inevitable.