Identities in Transition

Alt text Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, February 2008. Guatemalan women march in support of reparations for victims of the armed conflict. Photo by Brooke Anderson.

In Iraq, the Balkans, Guatemala and elsewhere, ethnicity and religion create troubling complications for transitional justice efforts.

Histories of exclusion, racism, and nationalist violence often create divisions so deep that finding a way to agree on the atrocities of the past seems near-impossible. Many factors may play a role in fostering division:

  • a pervasive sense of threat or fear of attack.
  • widespread belief in myths that dehumanize other groups and can be mobilized by nationalist leaders for political ends.
  • mistrust among ordinary citizens as well as political elites, especially when discrimination continues to be officially sanctioned, and groups do not believe the guarantees offered by the other side to be credible.
  • miscommunication and failures of communication between groups.
  • continuing conflict over access to resources.
  • lack of recognition on all sides of basic human needs such as identity and dignity.

Project Aims

ICTJ’s Research Unit’s embarked on a project to examine these issues. Two of our main goals were to:

  • ensure that transitional justice measures are sensitive to the ways in which targeting people on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity may cause distinctive harms—as in the case of destroying cultural heritage dear to them.
  • clarify the difficult political challenges that arise in societies where communities are not ready to cooperate, or even agree on a definition of who the victims are.

If transitional justice can find ways to act as a means of political learning across communities, foster trust and recognition, and serve to breakdown harmful myths and stereotypes—then this will be at least a small step toward meeting the challenges for transitional justice in divided societies.

Publications

The project culminated in the publication of Identities in Transition: Challenges for Transitional Justice in Divided Societies, edited by Paige Arthur, in January 2011. A report entitled Identities in Transition: Developing Better Transitional Justice Initiatives in Divided Societies, published in November 2009, provides guidance to policymakers and practitioners.

The book included chapters on:

  • Identity politics in domestic prosecutions
  • Indigenous peoples and claims for reparation
  • Truth telling, identities, and power in South Africa and Guatemala
  • Transitional justice for indigenous people in a non-transitional society
  • History education reform, transitional justice and the transformation of identities
  • Transitional justice, federalism and the accommodation of minority nationalism
  • Transitional justice and the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples
  • Security system reform and identity in divided societies
  • Transitional Justice in the wake of ethnic conflict