On Sequences and Linkages: the Relationship between Justice, Security and Development


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By Pablo de Greiff

Some habits die hard. This is especially true of ways of thinking. Despite significant changes in national and international law and practice in the last thirty years—the period that corresponds with the emergence of transitional justice as a field—the recent upheaval in the Middle East and Northern Africa region has provoked proposals that hearken back to a period that we may have thought long gone.

As with most habits, these discount “new” experiences and information ("new" in scare quotes for in reality they are not so new anymore). A line of thinking, enabled by the post 9/11 securitization of the West, is reemerging that treats security, justice, and development as if they were completely independent goods. This implies that they can ultimately and not just circumstantially conflict with one another and that each can be pursued through its own means. If this is true, then good policy consists in finding the correct sequence so that a combination that maximizes each can be attained.

Variations on this line of thought have one thing in common: the propensity to promote one of these aims at the expense of the others. Either through plain reduction: “justice is nothing more than the possibility of having stable institutions and of living a productive life,” or through stringent conditionalities: “without achieving wealth, the desire to achieve stability or justice is nothing more than a pipe dream.”

As a recent commentator put it, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are not comparable to the Eastern and Central European revolutions of 1989 largely because unlike these, the most salient fact in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia has been poverty—not tyranny—so although the likes of Mubarak deserve to be tried, “the Egyptian people cannot eat transitional justice.”

Variants of this line of thought that subordinate justice to security and development are more frequent than others. This is not simply a turn of mind that comes unaided, but rather one that has a long history and an abiding national and international institutions that prioritizes stability and growth over justice.

But to be fair, there are also versions of this line of thought that are similarly reductionistic, albeit in the opposite direction: “let justice be done, even if the sky falls.” For a long time now, justice promoters have had little to say about stability and development, perhaps protected by the purity of the defense of justice. Ironically, this includes promoters of transitional justice, a field that took shape in the crucible of the Latin American transitions of the Southern Cone, with the idea of being “problem solving”—where one of the problems that needed to be solved was, precisely, not just how to attain justice, but how to stabilize the transitions.

An excellent Uruguayan philosopher (that is, someone whose origins gave him a good reason to be familiar with some of the complexities at issue now—for it is good to remember, this is not the first time the world faces some of these dilemmas) once proposed that “it is always good to have more of the same thing” is the maxim of arrogant reasoning.

The visceral reaction to uncertainty that I am examining here, regardless of where it puts justice (either last, or first, it matters little) fails to see the significant connections between the goods that it asks us to differentiate from one another and to achieve in a simple, ordered sequence. As the commentator referred to before argued: “first things first,” putting into words the view that development needs to be prioritized over justice by the emerging democracies of the Middle East.

People taking to the streets in the Middle East and Northern Africa, however, have demonstrated a far more sophisticated understanding of how different goods relate to one another than some commentators (why are we surprised?). Let us not forget that Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, which has come to symbolize the spark that set popular uprisings in motion in Tunisia and throughout the region, was a protest not just against lack of opportunities, but against corruption and injustice.

It is not by mere coincidence that thwarted development, insecurity and injustice frequently occur together. A more perceptive commentator has argued that the Arab revolutions are for democracy and justice, but also against profiteers. Indeed, tyranny and profiteering have been historical bedfellows, as the frozen bank accounts of Ben Ali and Mubarak clearly demonstrate. In the region, however, the combination of education, communication, and demographics made the partnership particularly obnoxious.

So, how can the role of justice be framed without engaging in another form of reductionism? Of course, the claim cannot be that transitional justice, on its own, brings about security and development, not even that transitional justice can achieve its ends independently of security and development.

Transitional justice works, to the extent it does, because of its capacity to affirm certain norms, those whose violation truth commissions attempt to explain, prosecutions attempt to redress, institutional reforms to prospectively prevent and reparations to remedy. At the heart of the idea of transitional justice is the aim to strengthen rights regimes, not the least by showing that violations of basic rights are not inconsequential.

This is in fact the reason why transitional justice measures are appropriate responses to terror (appropriate in the sense of fitting, not sufficient), as terror is the result of targeting the most fundamental norms. Once those are shattered, they are shattered not just for direct victims, but for everyone; where systematic violations take place, no one is safe. And acting together is made virtually impossible. Unless by security one means the preservation of the regime of the strongest by whatever means and by development nothing more than growth, security and development call for respect for basic norms and rights.

There are different ways of spelling out this argument. From an instrumental perspective one can argue that without respect for basic norms and rights it is difficult to attain levels of trust that are indispensable for security systems to be effective and for development to be sustainable. While the narrow argument that the rule of law is important for development has over time become more widespread, another, at least equally obvious, has still to take deep roots everywhere (including in sectors of the West): security systems that fail to conform to justice, fail to get the support they need to be effective (there is empirical evidence of the relevant correlations).

Of course, a certain degree of social control can be exercised through force, as the examples of Argentina, Romania, and yes, Egypt, suggest. But experience also suggests this is not a form of resolving problems of social coordination but simply of postponing them.

Adapting a line from Amartya Sen, one can argue that the way in which justice contributes to security and development goes beyond this. Indeed, since security and development are open ended concepts, what they mean and require in specific circumstances has to be decided, primarily, by those that are to enjoy them.

But this can only be done if people are offered sufficient guarantees to participate in the processes by which these issues are settled. Histories of unredressed abuses, where whole sectors of the population are marginalized and where fear still reigns, are not contexts in which participation on an equal footing is likely to take place.

That the post transition settlements about the distribution of security and development in some of the former Soviet republics took the shape it did should have come as no surprise. One can only hope that Egypt and Tunisia will make choices leading in a different direction. The dialogue that is now underway in these countries to shape effective security and fair and sustainable development, the mechanisms for the affirmation of rights, including of those that have been marginalized in the past, cannot be ignored. The title of the meeting ICTJ organized in Tunis in April was deliberately chosen: “Addressing the Past, Building the Future.”

Ultimately, it is not just that respect for rights and basic norms is instrumentally useful for security and development, or that it helps to set the framework around which security and development can be given concrete content. In the end, this type of respect is an essential, constitutive element of both security and development: to be secure and to live in a developed society means to live in a society in which rights and basic norms are indeed respected.

The challenge then cannot simply be one of finding the “right” sequence between security, justice and development. The societies in transition, including those in the Middle East, must not fall into this trap. This is a line of thought that was familiar during the Cold War and has wreaked as much havoc in some of the countries where authoritarian regimes were installed then as it has to the regime of constitutional liberties in the post 9/11 United States and other Western democracies.

The truth is—as the late Bouazizi plainly understood—security, justice and development are closely related. The World Bank, in its last World Development Report on Conflict, Security, and Development, has caught up with this view. It insists that the way to avoid conflict or to emerge from it depends not just on security, not just on jobs and not merely on justice, but in making gains on all three fronts. It would be a shame if commentators did not.

Let us stop talking, then, of sequencing these goods as if that were the solution, and start thinking seriously about giving meaningful policy expression to the ways in which justice, security and development are, at root, related to one another.

Pablo de Greiff is the director of ICTJ’s Research Unit.