New book eyes rethink of transitional justice

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Political Science professor Joanna Quinn has co-edited the recently released Transitional Justice in Comparative Perspective: Preconditions for Success, a book “underpinned by an inherent sense of optimism,” as one reviewer put it, that goes beyond simply identifying obstacles to transitional justice but additionally offers ideas on how those obstacles might be overcome.

She admits it feels weird to consider the well-worn term – “game-changer.”

But what Political Science professor Joanna Quinn and her colleagues have assembled in their latest book may be exactly that when it comes to how the world approaches transitional justice.

“We keep creating, establishing, putting into action all kinds of mechanisms of transitional justice – and they fail,” said the Director of Western’s Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. “People like me have been studying why they fail for years. We make minor corrections here; we make minor corrections there. But we’ve never really thought to do it differently.

“This book asks us to take a step back and do it differently from the beginning. If we can do that, it not only would save billions of dollars, but it could become a true game-changer because we keep doing the same thing over and over and over again without making changes.”

Transitional Justice in Comparative Perspective: Preconditions for Success explores the obstacles that have swamped the transitional justice process and kept it from achieving desired outcomes. “Underpinned by an inherent sense of optimism,” however, as one reviewer put it, this book also goes beyond simply identifying those obstacles and offers ideas on how those obstacles might be overcome.

At its basic level, transitional justice consists of measures implemented by a society following trauma inflicted upon it by authoritarianism, repression, civil war or large-scale human rights abuses and atrocity. Those measures often include trials, truth commissions, and reparations.

While they garner attention and headlines, these measures often fall short of their intended purpose of moving a community forward. Volumes of research have explored why that is so.

Quinn explained that societies in the waning stages of conflict and abuse share a set of characteristics such as instability, division, institutional weakness and distrust. The impact of those characteristics is that moving forward – or simply moving at all – is difficult and the outcomes of any kind of activity are uncertain.

“People who live in countries where there has been conflict, civil war, structural oppression, those people are in desperate need. We tell them we’ve got a solution – and then we come to the table with something that doesn’t work,” she said. “If we could make the conditions beforehand amenable to some kind of transitional justice, then that has the capacity to change the game totally.”

The term ‘justice’ can mean a lot of things, Quinn stressed. “It’s not just a court and gavel. People need iron sheets to fix their houses; people need medical care to attend to the physical wounds; people need to feel safe sending their kids to school. Justice isn’t just narrowly conceived. Justice actually means getting people the things they need after conflict so they can rebuild their lives.

“If you think of justice more broadly, that’s the kind of thing this book addresses.”

The book has roots in a conference held by the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, a group of more than 50 faculty members and 30 grad students all working on related ideas. It is the largest research community focused on transitional justice in North America.

Quinn edited the book along with Political Science PhD student Tammy Lambert and Dalhousie University adjunct professor Samar El-Masri, PhD’05 (Political Science).

“It’s a labour of love because we’re all committed to the ideas that we talk about in the book. But it was that coming together around the ideas that helped us each in our work – we all work on different things in this field, but it helped to cement and reinforce some of the stuff that we’ve been seeing in our own work, as well.”

Across its nine chapters, the book’s authorship includes a who’s who of transitional justice experts – people who influence how the subject is taught, considered, legislated and applied around the world. What is offered on these pages, Quinn said, should speak to practitioners, non-government organizations, policy-makers and governments alike.

At its core, the book stresses “a pause” before jumping into a transitional justice process. Populations need time to prepare for “what’s next” – and then, if a transitional justice process happens, it will work better when the population is in a better place.

“But if we just plug it in and assume that it’s going to work, it doesn’t. We see those failures time after time. We’ve analyzed them. ‘Maybe we should give them more money.’ ‘Maybe if they had had better support.’ ‘Maybe if they had better facilities.’ ‘Maybe if they had better terms of reference.’ We have looked at each of those things, but we’ve never really thought about the fact that you can’t plant a seed in soil that is not ready. We need fertilizer. We need water. We need all those things to make something grow.”

While much of this work focuses on circumstances seemingly half a world away, Canadians should not be quick to overlook the significance of these measures at home, where transitional justice processes are also necessary, Quinn said. Think about inquiries into missing and murdered Indigenous women, compensation for residential schools or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Even in the United States, perhaps not known for its historic introspection abilities, there was a truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro, NC, where three people were killed during Civil Rights riots in the 1960s.

The ideas covered in this book are universal, Quinn stressed.

“Someone once asked me why Canadians should care. We should care because of the Indigenous questions happening here. We should care because of the refugees that come to Canada who need support. We should care because these are important conversations.”