In March 2004, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), with assistance from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), hosted a three-day conference at Airlie House in Warrenton, Virginia, entitled "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies." The purpose of the conference was to explore, from different disciplinary perspectives, how divided societies emerging from violent conflict have sought justice and reconciliation through various transitional justice mechanisms and to assess what impact these mechanisms have had on trauma and reconciliation.

 

Summary

  • Truth telling, justice seeking, and reconciliation are inherently political processes heavily influenced by conflicting interests and access to resources. The process of seeking justice through legal procedures can be more important in building respect for the rule of law than in the meting out of summary justice.
  • Countries emerging from long-term violent conflict are troubled societies that may develop destructive social and political patterns. In such cases, fundamental psychological adjustments in individual and group identity—aided by reconstruction processes—are essential to reconciliation.
  • The tasks of promoting justice, psychological relief, and reconciliation are hugely challenging and costly, and they may take decades to achieve. Yet interventions with these goals in mind are usually constrained by time and inadequate resources. The end goal of achieving reconciliation is likely to require multiple interventions.
  • There is often ambiguity about who the beneficiaries of any particular transitional justice intervention are meant to be. Moreover, interventions may impact individuals and broader social groups differently with respect to psychological rehabilitation and reconciliation. Therefore, the needs of individual victims must be balanced against the society's larger short- and long-term goals.
  • In transitional justice processes, "complex truths" may be hard to find in individual survivors' stories. Historical narratives are a crucial part of getting to the truth, but the telling of history reflects the perspective of the teller and can be the basis for continuing conflict. Truth commissions and war crimes tribunals can provide an essential service by presenting concrete evidence about terrible crimes.
  • Societies emerging from conflict are culturally diverse. When designing transitional justice mechanisms, it is essential to identify and draw upon local cultural traditions and strengths to the extent possible and to consult the population that the interventions are meant to help.
  • "Third-party" outsiders can play essential roles by introducing new perspectives about the conflict, by providing needed expertise, and/or by mediating among parties to the conflict. But outside interventions can also inhibit social rebuilding and psychological healing if not handled properly or sensitively.
  • Memorials can play a role in recovery from trauma and the shaping of historical memory. But the commercialization of memorial sites may have both positive and negative effects on society. Depending on the narratives they convey—and their timing—memorials can promote reconciliation or stimulate further conflict.
  • Defining success, even in a single geographical context, is a complicated process. It is extremely difficult to evaluate the overall effectiveness of transitional justice mechanisms given the differing perspectives of victims and perpetrators. Little effort has been made to assess the impact of transitional justice on trauma relief programs.
  • There is sometimes the unstated presumption that successful transitional justice mechanisms contribute to the establishment of democracy in countries emerging from authoritarian government. Clearly, this political outcome does not always occur. But effective transitional justice mechanisms can help victims regain a sense of dignity and self-worth—feelings essential to citizenship in a democratic polity.

About the Report

In March 2004, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), with assistance from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), hosted a three-day conference at Airlie House in Warrenton, Virginia, entitled "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies." Participants included approximately forty-five researchers and practitioners from around the world, about half of them current or former USIP grantees.

The purpose of the conference was to explore, from different disciplinary perspectives, how divided societies emerging from violent conflict have sought justice and reconciliation through various transitional justice mechanisms and to assess what impact these mechanisms have had on trauma and reconciliation. The conference focused on societies that have (1) experienced political transitions following inter- or intrastate conflict, communal violence, or widespread human rights violations along ideological, ethnic, and/or historical lines; and (2) relied on different transitional justice mechanisms and public policy interventions. Conference organizers included Judy Barsalou, Neil Kritz, and Colette Rausch (USIP), Audrey Chapman and Victoria Baxter (AAAS), Vamik Volkan (University of Virginia), and Joseph Montville (George Mason and American Universities).

This report was written by Judy Barsalou, director of the USIP's Grant Program. It summarizes preliminary findings on a range of issues that conference participants agreed deserve further examination.

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