“The past is much more elaborate than peace agreements“. Reflecting on transitional justice in Liberia07.10.2020
Aaron Weah is a transitional justice researcher based at University of Ulster. He is investigating the impact of violent conflict and wartime memories on Liberia’s post-conflict development.
Although the field of transitional justice is now at least 35 years old, there was a time when it seemed like a new and exciting paradigm, sometimes even treated, often unrealistically, as a possible panacea for various ills, and heralded as an innovative set of tools that could help solve intractable problems in complex contexts. Aaron Weah experienced it this way. A Liberian who was still a university student when the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2003, Aaron shortly thereafter went on to play a role in civil society in the early stages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia. He explains that “We wanted some kind of interruption, we wanted to see something different, we wanted to see something new. And then Sierra Leone indicted Charles Taylor, and this whole new technology called transitional justice had a fancy kind of naming. It sounded different, and it's the kind of difference we wanted”. The approach created “some form of space where we could talk critically about who did what and who should be held accountable. So at that moment … the discourse of transitional justice appeared to represent the kind of change we wanted, or shift away from the systematic strain of peace agreements wording amnesty and power sharing”.
The failure to address historical inequalities
Now a doctoral student at Ulster University in Belfast, Aaron finds himself critically reflecting on the transitional justice experience in Liberia and globally. He continues to think that the paradigm is powerful, but he also has some critiques. Perhaps chief among them is that the transitional justice process in Liberia did not adequately grapple with the long legacies of international economic exploitation and colonialism experienced by Liberia during the 19th and 20th centuries. The pathologies resulting from decades of natural resource exploitation by extractive industries must be seen precursors of conflict. As Aaron puts it, “the past is much more elaborate than peace agreements that tend to look back at maybe 10 years, at 20 years”, when the scope of time should really be much longer. He regrets that the transitional justice process only focused on “a limited past rather than a full temporal period that connects the immediate with the distant past; the past around which ethnic identity and racial identity are better understood”. Although the TRC’s mandate included “investigating the antecedents of the crises which gave rise to and impacted the violent conflict in Liberia”, Aaron feels that it fell far short of what it could have done to fully understand this complex history and delve into linkages between that past and the present.
Tensions between local knowledge and international expertise
My discussion with Aaron also explored another question: the interplay between global expertise and local knowledge, a topic that appears repeatedly in this blog series. The tension between international actors, who often bring comparative expertise about tools and processes, and local/national actors, who know their own context better and are essential drivers of these processes on the ground, is almost always present during transitional justice initiatives. There is no single correct answer to the appropriate balance between these two forces, although it is recognized that local actors must always be the final arbiters of what is right for their own countries. That said, in the Liberian case, Aaron argues that as Liberians were constructing a truth commission, their insistence on local ownership might have ultimately detracted from the process and the outcome. This might have been the result of a combination of nationalistic tendencies on the side of Liberians and pushiness or arrogance on the side of the internationals. In any case, while he clearly endorses the fundamental importance of the role of nationally-based actors, he worried that they sometimes pushed back too far against international expertise and occasionally refused to take useful advice from the international community. One example of this was the drafting, publishing, dissemination, and archiving of the TRC’s final report. For Aaron, this process and product fell far short of the potential to generate cultural and political change in Liberia. Studying and understanding other examples of final report-writing and working with international partners more closely to design this process might have resulted in greater impact.
Perhaps paradoxically, to a certain extent, Aaron also acknowledges that the opposite might have also been true. That is, in some ways, the TRC might have missed opportunities to look more deeply into its own history, culture, and context in ways that would have strengthened the process, helping create a deeper sense of local ownership and resonance with Liberians more broadly.
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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?
Louis Bickford, CEO, Memria.org
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.
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.