The Power of a Transitional Justice Approach to Education


Lynn Davies

This paper explores the power of a transitional justice approach to education reconstruction in post-conflict settings. Its central question is how the aims of transitional justice can guide educational reform processes after conflict or periods of massive human rights violations, with the final goal of helping to promote guarantees of nonrepetition. How does a transitional justice approach specifi cally contribute to peacebuilding through education?

Transitional justice approaches in education are distinctive, potent, and impactful, and, while tremendously challenging, they can shift education from being part of the problem to being part of the transition to a more peaceful society. In the massive literature on the topic of peacebuilding (and peacebuilding education), definitions vary, but
usually, following John Galtung’s work, a fundamental diff erence is drawn between “negative peace,” or the absence of war or violence, and “positive peace,” or the removal of the root causes of violence and the pursuit of structural changes that address social injustice as a means to achieve sustainable peace. Clearly, the notion of “building” implies a process, not an end. Peace is not something to be achieved but a dynamic situation with elements that contribute to making violent conflict less likely, both now and in the future.

Within this context, transitional justice underlines the dimension of redress. Transitional justice, understood as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation,” presupposes that in order to build a lasting peace, violations of human rights must be first recognized and redressed. Such redress would, for many, include trying to compensate for past injustices related to exclusion from social and political goods, including exclusion from education and the right to learn.

The distinctiveness of transitional justice within a peacebuilding process can be highlighted in several dimensions, each with key educational implications. First is the question of the large scale of past human rights violations in such contexts. Transitional justice initiatives do not necessarily relate to criminal offences committed by individuals or small groups but to systemic, sustained violence that adversely affects the rights of large groups of people and harms their lives. These actions include violence carried out (or permitted) by the state, which should otherwise be responsible for the protection of its citizens. Achieving justice in such circumstances goes beyond the “normal” mechanisms of criminal law, extending its definition to include war crimes and crimes against humanity. Th e legacies of past state-sponsored human rights abuses are complex and multidimensional; addressing them has expanded the notion of justice from “regular” trials to include other mechanisms, such as truth commissions and memory initiatives, reparations programs, and the reform of the judiciary, army, and police. Accordingly, transitional justice processes involve novel institutions with complex mandates, rules, and procedures, which may make them technically difficult to understand in many societies in which they operate. For these processes to be legitimatized and lead to their intended effects, they may require some form of public education programs. Formal education institutions can also play a fundamental role in helping learners to understand transitional justice mechanisms and why they are, or were, necessary.

The second distinctiveness is the term transitional itself. Coined in the mid 1980s, the term transitional justice refers to the processes by which regimes attempt to move—or transition—from conflict, authoritarianism or oppression characterized by systematic violations of norms to more well-established democratic legal regimes, which can protect against such occurrences in the future. But the effort carries huge costs and dangers to the existing regime. As Pablo de Greiff has claimed, “There is no transitional country that can legitimately claim great successes in the field.” No country has undergone a transition that has prosecuted every perpetrator or has, through truth telling or other means, disclosed the fate of every victim or thoroughly identified the structures that made the violations possible. Yet de Greiff highlights the crucial function that transitional justice processes play in helping to draw a line between a past in which rights were not respected and a future in which rights matter, a challenge and a function that the ordinary justice system does not face. Transitional, then, does not qualify the word justice but really means “justice in times of transition.” Transitional justice is, therefore, a stage in the search for justice, and education should be seen as very much part of this dynamic search.

A third—and central—distinctiveness of transitional justice is that it is constantly past- and forward-looking. Indeed, a basic presupposition of transitional justice is that addressing the past is a way of building a future that is recognizably better. As Clara Ramírez-Barat points out, transitional justice measures play a key symbolic role: establishing a break with the past by (re)affirming that certain norms and values that support them matter. The other option—to do nothing—does not create a space where victims, perpetrators, and bystanders can learn to live together. Th is form of “corrective” justice is seen as different from justice meted out in response to specific infractions of the law and to some other forms of justice, like distributive justice (although this can indeed form part of a future social contract). The aim is the forging of a rights-based culture, which requires wide knowledge of rights and their implications. It means interrupting cycles of revenge and violence and understanding how hatred amplifies.

This leads to the fourth distinctiveness of transitional justice: the importance of its truth-seeking, or acknowledgment, component. Truth is the first victim of any repressive regime. As David Guinn argues, under repressive systems, “Reality is distorted, as moral norms are turned upside down and replaced by the corrupted vision of the culture of the regime.” It could be said that education is in part always a search for truth and the acknowledgment of the implications of such truth; although, of course, whose version of “truth” prevails should always be in question. In terms of acknowledgment, truth seeking includes the necessary identification of real people in the conflict—that is, the victims and the perpetrators as well as the bystanders. This recognition is also intergenerational, as children learn from their parents and grandparents. Admittedly, there are issues involved for education in such attempts at identifi cation and public naming of violations and perpetrators, particularly with regard to individuals and families. But identification also extends to governments. It relates to what is constituted as a war crime or a crime against humanity and who is responsible for it. In the identification of responsibility for harm committed we start to see important but controversial issues for educators.

The final distinctiveness, linked to the first, is the fundamental public dimension of transitional justice: the idea of a new social contract. The implications of justice processes for civil society stretch forward into the “democratic regeneration of the social web” itself, which conflict and its enduring legacies have affected. New narratives emerge from the media, educational institutions, and cultural activities and agents as well as from civil society organizations. Ramírez-Barat holds that transitional justice processes are usually accompanied by an eruption of creative activities. But strengthening the public space requires the population’s capacity to assess accurate information as well as platforms to exercise freedom of expression and association under conditions of equality and inclusiveness. Education is deeply implicated in the achievement of these requirements and skills.

A summary model of what has been discussed so far would be as follows:

It must be stated from the outset that these outcomes are not guaranteed. Change does not happen in a linear fashion, and many factors intervene to prevent educational experiences from being translated into future peaceable or democratic orientations. Conversely, the accomplishment of democracy requires far more than the
implementation of transitional justice measures. Yet the argument of this paper is that without such measures the restoration of civic trust and the promotion of democracy may be only partial or threatened.

It can be seen from this model that what I term a justice-sensitive approach to education is a highly political one. Not only is there to be political learning in terms of education about democracy, rights, and the rule of law, but this is to be underpinned by a critical pedagogy that may challenge power and authority—whether of government or religious leaders. Th e central distinctiveness and the power of such a justice-sensitive approach in education is precisely this overtly political lens. It is possible to teach conflict resolution and reconciliation from an interpersonal perspective, looking at, for example, family relationships or small-group encounters in the hope that young people will be less likely to use or condone violence and hatred in their lives in the future. Yet an approach to peace education that includes justice considerations takes a much wider approach, locating violence and conflict in a broader set of contexts and histories. Ideally, this method would not ignore the personal and interpersonal but would seek to understand how violence becomes normalized in a society, how hatred is built, or how existing divisions can be further manipulated into aggression. It would also touch on how educational institutions may have been involved (as will be discussed below).

However, transitional justice’s backward gaze has to include education itself and how it may have been implicated in conflict and violence. A justice-sensitive approach, therefore, goes further than some conflict-sensitive approaches to education and helps answer some of the critiques of the latter in terms of whether it can help peacebuilding. Conflict sensitivity refers to the ability of an organization working in situations of conflict to understand the context in which it is operating and to act upon that understanding to avoid negative impacts and maximize positive impacts on the conflict.

This is sometimes seen as synonymous with peacebuilding, whereas the “do no harm” principles enshrined in conflict sensitivity do not necessarily address what to do in the future to create change. Th e two-way gaze of justice-sensitive education, in contrast, uses deep understanding of society’s past to promote a realistic new future.

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