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Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Radical critical blog series

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.

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There is no blueprint

Local knowledge and international expertise at odds
03. November 2020
Manfred Antranias Zimmer | Pixabay

Vasuki Nesiah, Professor of Human Rights and International Law at New York University, deals with the tensions that transitional justice is facing between local knowledge and international expertise and speaks of the power of being 'international' in the practice of transitional justice.

Vasuki Nesiah is Professor of Human Rights and International Law at the Gallatin School, NYU. She has published on the history and politics of human rights, humanitarianism, international criminal law, global feminisms and decolonization. She worked as a practitioner in the field of human rights law and policy for many years before moving to academia full time.

I always felt that Vasuki Nesiah was at least one step ahead of me. At any given moment, I sensed that she understood things about transitional justice that I had not yet understood and, indeed, that it would take me a little while longer to fully grasp. We worked together at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) for almost a decade, starting in 2001. I remember a time when we were tasked with doing a joint presentation at a staff retreat about the relevance of economic and social rights in the transitional justice field, a topic about which I knew practically nothing, and Vasuki knew a great deal. As we prepared together, I was in awe of the nuance and depth with which she approached her part of the presentation. I have continued to learn from her ever since.

Our conversation for this blog series centered on the role of international actors in transitional justice. 

From profoundly "south-south" to international dominance?

An early expert in transitional justice, Jose Zalaquett, a Chilean legal scholar, often commented that the field had a profoundly “south-south” dynamic, as activists in Argentina shared their experiences with counterparts in Chile who, in turn, shared experiences with South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Timor-Leste, and so on. This was clearly true in the early days of the field but, as with any emerging field, an ever-growing group of “international experts” began to emerge. They offered comparative and thematic expertise on topics such as truth-telling or reparations. Some were based at universities and some at international NGOs, like the ICTJ, where Vasuki and I were based, or at international institutions, like the United Nations or bilateral government agencies. 

Vasuki and I discussed the ways in which there has always been a tension in the transitional justice field between deeply-grounded “local” knowledge, and comparative expertise. On the one hand, only local experts can determine what is best for their own countries. On the other hand, in many cases, local experts look for—or are offered—international expertise for comparative lessons, best practices, and ideas that can be borrowed or imported from other contexts and adapted to their own.

This tension takes numerous forms. Actors immersed in local social movements may often be best positioned to see their societies in their social complexity, attuned to colonial histories or other legacies of injustice and justice struggles, as well as the opportunities, struggles and injustices that their communities are grappling with in the present moment; at the same time, they may value global solidarities and forge alliances for collaboration, mutual support and reciprocal learning. Actors based in international organizations often present their claim to expertise as a politically neutral and even technical analysis of cross-national patterns and tendencies. As Vasuki pointed out, the challenge is how we account for the politics of knowledge and power in working transnationally. Everyone is negotiating a space where certain ideas and worldviews have traction with the dominant world order more than others, and this has implications for which ideas and whose voices are taken seriously, who gets funding, who is seen as an expert etc.

The power of being 'international'

Vasuki points out that it is important not to underestimate “the power of being ‘international’”. International experts often have more funding than their local counterparts and greater access to strong global networks of other experts and decision makers. Even if we have been invited by local actors, “we are entering that space as people coming from New York, hoards of money, self-funded, being able to come and prescribe what we think is ideal”. 

The relationship between international expertise and local innovation is complicated. On the one hand, international experts can share ideas from other contexts that can help broaden the imagination, helping local actors to develop strategies that they might not have done otherwise. On the other hand, “we would often say, ‘It's not one-size-fits all, there is no blueprint", and yet we would be actually the vehicles for a blueprint. So, there's a certain critical vigilance in terms of one's own role, one's organization's roles … I guess my answer is that we need to take responsibility, I mean as ICTJ, as more than perhaps any other institution needs to take responsibility for that narrowing of institutional options, and that narrowing of what transitional justice was, in some sense”.

By the end of 2020, these questions seem sharply relevant, as the role of international NGOs, in general, is being questioned by many people in the human rights, peacebuilding, and development worlds.

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