From Cookie-Cutter to Bespoke Justice

Monday, December 5, 2016TOPICS: ResearchFaculty and Staff

From Cookie-Cutter to Bespoke Justice Article from Kroc Peace Magazine
begin quoteJustice is an elusive and contested concept, and our sense of what justice requires depends a lot on our own history, culture and values.

Imagine it is the year 2021. After investigating alleged U.S. war crimes associated with the decades-long war on terror, U.N. experts have recommended that American officials be put on trial in a special war crimes tribunal based on principles and procedures drawn from Islamic Sharia law. Regardless of how Americans might feel about the abuses in question, such a proposal would undoubtedly be highly controversial. The idea might strike many as culturally alien, inappropriate and illegitimate — out of sync with Anglo-American traditions of justice.                

This scenario may sound far-fetched, and perhaps it is. After all, no U.N. body would ever make such a recommendation to the United States. And yet, the “international community” routinely pressures governments around the world grappling with legacies of human rights abuse to implement highly Westernized forms of justice that some find just as unfamiliar and alienating as many Americans would find judgment under Islamic jurisprudence.  

Justice is an elusive and contested concept, and our sense of what justice requires depends a lot on our own history, culture and values. For some, justice means retribution — putting the bad guys in jail. Others, however, point to the need for restorative justice, trying to bring some harmony to the victim and the community that has been harmed. Still others point to the need for reparations and distributive justice, making sure that communities harmed by the war have a meaningful chance to continue their lives in dignity. In different cultures, times and places, these and other dimensions of justice have been comparatively emphasized or deemphasized. 

All of this helps one to appreciate just how hard the idea of “global justice” truly is. Yet we live in an era where the International Criminal Court and other global institutions are tasked with meting out justice across diverse cultures and countries. Perhaps not surprisingly, their work has often generated frictions when victims and others affected by the conflict hold different views about what it means to “do justice.”  

After years spent working with victims of human rights abuses around the world, I have become increasingly interested in how post-conflict justice initiatives might better manage such tensions in ways that lead to stronger feelings of legitimacy and ownership on the part of local communities. My research has shown me that if differing conceptions of justice are at times a source of friction, they might also be a source of inspiration and creativity that promote broader peacebuilding aims.

For example, in the late 20th century a brutal conflict in East Timor caused the deaths of as many as a quarter of the East Timorese population, leaving an acute need for post-conflict justice and reconciliation. Westernized retributive justice orchestrated by the United Nations was an important part of the response, but was largely symbolic given the large numbers of perpetrators involved. Especially in rural areas, the reality was that most victims were going to have to live side by side with those who had wronged them. 

Thankfully, the need for micro-level truth-telling and reconciliation was addressed in part through an innovative Community Reconciliation Process (CRP) that provided a space for perpetrators, victims and communities to have an intimate dialogue about the violence and lingering anger and resentment. Importantly, the CRP was anchored in traditional dispute-resolution systems of lisan — involving the unfolding of a traditional large mat, chewing of betel nut, chanting and dancing — creating a process that was more accessible, familiar and culturally resonant to many involved. 

Of course, local justice is no panacea, and in East Timor CRP Panels incorporated members of local women’s and youth groups to balance concerns that some traditions had historically been male-dominated and discriminatory. This brought a modern, human rights sensibility to much older rituals. In this and other ways, the cocktail of justice initiatives implemented in East Timor might best be thought of as a global-local hybrid, drawing upon some of the strengths of both global and local justice traditions. 

Other experiments in using traditional justice that I have investigated — including Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Uganda — serve to illustrate further both the promises and the pitfalls of traditional justice. They show that tensions between local and international justice will never be eliminated. But with care and respect, frictions can also serve as an entry point for a rich cross-cultural dialogue, potentially leading to creative initiatives tailored to local needs, avoiding the imposed “cookie-cutter” global justice approaches of the past.  

is an associate professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies and teaches classes in transitional justice and international human rights. He is currently working on a book entitled Beyond the End of History: Re-Thinking Transitional Justice in the 21st Century. A lawyer by training, Dr. Sharp formerly worked for Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of State.

Read this article and discover other articles of Kroc Peace Magazine 2016 on ISSUU.

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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