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Justice, reconciliation and peacebuilding: Seen through African eyes

May 3, 2010

….In each of these African countries were peace has returned and the country is moving on, the question still remains, what do you do with the human rights abuses? The irony of the debate is that the liberal peace system is in crises. The justice it presents as a pre-requisite for reconciliation does not work. The argument that for any meaningful peace to exist, there must first be justice, forgiveness and then reconciliation. It is not practical and limits the space for alternative approaches to peacemaking.

Justice and reconciliation are often associated with laying the foundations for forgiveness. Focus is on establishing truth, acknowledging harm and providing appropriate forms justice (compensation and punishment). Justice becomes a balancing of rights of victims and offenders rather than taking a stand on the breaking of trust with a community. Justice is presented as a pre-requisite for reconciliation and peace-building. There can be no forgiveness and reconciliation without justice. Justice in this context is the retributive system in which the state takes up the responsibility of carrying out justice.

This idea of “first justice then reconciliation” is problematic in many ways.

  1. There is nothing like perfect justice. What is just is very relative.
  2. Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? Who draws the line and within what time-frame? Victimhood is about a sequence of punctuated acts of violence. Defining the victim depends on the time line in the sequence. No one is born a victim, perpetrators become victims in a sequence of punctuated acts of violence over time.
  3. Every pursuit of justice creates a new injustice. There is nothing like perfect justice. The question then is how much justice is enough and who determines that?
  4. Human life cannot function properly without some form of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. Justice may rectify past wrongs but it does not create community or communion. Some form of communion, some form of positive relationship has to be established if the victim and perpetrator are to be fully healed. We are interconnected and healing can be found in our interconnectedness. According to Pilisuk and Parks, “actual human interdependence is far greater than our contemporary values recognize. Understanding this interdependence is critical to our health, our sense of belonging, and even that survival of the human community. Where interdependence is nourished, it provides a healing web with remarkable powers for regeneration of the human potential.” (p.xi). The importance of our interconnectedness and interactions for any form of healing and reconciliation cannot be over emphasized.
  5. Justice satisfies our sense of what is right but it does not heal us. It brings us peace as an absence of war but not peace as a harmonious ordering of differences.

Forgiveness after justice is not much different from forgiveness outside of justice. In both cases the perpetrator is treated as if the crime did not happen. In one you ignore the crime in the other you abandon vengeance (you act as if it did not happen). Forgiveness, justice and reconciliation are about communion. Iit is about community.

Read the entire lecture.


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