Future of justice

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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There are trade-offs between the kinds of justice that victims and others rightly demand, and the compromises that must be made to take dictators and warlords out of power, or to maintain the functioning apparatus of government, and so on. Such was the case, nearly 50 years after Nuremberg, when the United Nations set up international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.

With the intense demands presented by the large-scale violence that has taken place in the years since, transitional Justice has been stretched every which way. A number of unique ways of ‘doing’ justice has resulted – one that simply couldn’t have been envisioned even a couple of decades ago.

More than 35 countries have opted to use truth commissions, for example, in the aftermath of abuse.  The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one example of this, established as a result of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2008.  In other cases, successor governments are taking responsibility for their actions and appointing their own judicial bodies to decide fairly and impartially what should be done with those people who have committed illegal acts. Some governments have even issued apologies to the people who were harmed.

Of course, the establishment of a permanent international court, the International Criminal Court (ICC), that stands as a court of last resort, when countries are themselves either unwilling or unable to act, is a significant step forward.

My own work is in Uganda, the scene of untold violence at the hands of rulers such as Idi Amin. It is home to a number of different transitional justice experiments, including two truth commissions and a referral to the ICC. More than 20 armed insurgencies have been carried out against the current president — himself a rebel leader who seized power by means of the gun.

To be sure, African countries present their own unique circumstances, not least of which has been a reluctance on the part of the international community to engage in activities to support African states in making credible and legitimate decisions around questions of succession and transition.

And yet, looking ahead to what the next 40 years will bring, I am optimistic.

The dramatic rise in the amount of attention being paid to transitional societies today indicates a growing awareness of the needs of communities after conflict. There is no doubt that this consciousness will continue, and efforts will be redoubled to become much more responsive to the needs of these communities. This will mean, for example, countries like the United States will need to become more open to solutions like the ICC. Through continued engagement, these mechanisms will become stronger and more effective.

The international community has already begun to move beyond the kinds of ‘cookie cutter’ mechanisms that were employed in post-war Germany and Japan to consider more specialized and appropriate methods of dealing with these kinds of crimes. New and innovative ways of responding will continue to be developed. As they do, the mechanisms by which criminal masterminds are held accountable will become more responsive, and the instruments themselves finer and sharper.

As nationals of countries like Uganda are able to attain levels of education that allow them to perform on the top international stages, ‘made in Africa’ (or Latin America, or elsewhere) solutions, using traditional methods but coupled with the latest jurisprudence from around the world, will produce more appropriate outcomes — based on customary understandings and circumstances. By incorporating thinkers from around the globe, the way justice is done will become more nuanced and sensitive.

Indeed, as the world becomes a smaller place, the importance of fields like transitional justice will have a deeper and more lasting impact.

Joanna Quinn is a Political Science professor in the Faculty of Social Science.