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A Just Peace or Just Peace?


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The international debate about the relationship between peace and justice has been especially sharp since the end of the Cold War and seemed to move us beyond the imperatives of global Realpolitik. There are those, of course, who could argue that it has done no such thing and that politics and international affairs remain firmly rooted in the realities of power relations. For the purposes of the brief argument stated here, that is little to the point, however.

Even if we accept that the idea of justice represents an unattainable ideal, in whatever form we give it, and there are many to choose from, we still have to consider its claims to attention in the resolution of conflict and the achievement of a lasting peace.


It has to be realised at the outset that the historical record of peacemaking in the post-Cold War era fits into too brief a period to draw any but the most conditional of conclusions - something that seems to have escaped the advocates of peace versus justice or peace with justice. Nor is there space here to consider their various and competing claims. Diplomats and others whose principal concern is to achieve peace accords relatively quickly may choose to defer matters of justice to a later date, but lawyers and human rights activists would tend to a different view. Both have a moral and professional interest in taking these positions. If one were to make a suggestion, however, it would be that while truces and peace agreements may be concluded without too much attention to demands for justice, this cannot be said for attempts to achieve positive and durable peace and reconciliation.

In the latter case, where a self-sustaining peace is sought, an element of truth-telling would seem to be unavoidable. This is not merely a matter of weighing the grievances of the victims and perpetrators, and sometimes the victim/perpetrators, though an acknowledgement of the suffering experienced is important both as an element of social healing and as an antidote to its repetition. It also allows us more accurately to address what are misleadingly referred to as root causes.


This is not to argue that a comprehensively objective truth is available. Beyond the most elementary of factual assertions, subjectivity becomes unavoidable, but what may be achieved is an understanding of the validity of contrasting historical accounts. Understanding different narratives of the same events can play a significant role in defusing tensions and hatreds that might contribute to future violence. What is important here is the contribution of truth-telling to the dissolution of absolutes.

In ways different from the advocates of violence, protagonists in the peace/justice debate may also be guilty of taking liberties with their deployment of historical evidence for their chosen causes. Something of which many historians themselves need reminding is that history, though it is lived forwards, is written backwards. Most of the logic of events is inserted after the event to make them intelligible, it does not necessarily inform actions as they happen. In other words, causation is a very elusive and dangerous concept, something that has major implications for people attempting to impute cause to correlation, as many scholars using regression analysis seem to do. (I pause here to wonder what in the real world an independent variable would look like.) We must come to terms with the limits to what is in any positivist sense "knowable" - indeed, much of what happens in the real world may be counter-intuitive. If we say that our reading of history is useful in making it possible to anticipate the future we are at once stating the obvious but, if we take the idea too far, also run the risk of making a cardinal error. As the great mid-20th century historian Sir Lewis Namier put it, "The enduring achievement of historical study is a historical sense ... of how things do not happen."

Let us take an example to illustrate this point. It has been argued, for instance, that leaders facing retribution for crimes committed while in office will tend to retain power at virtually any cost. Yet the historical record would suggest that even the most absolute of tyrants cannot do exactly as he pleases and must look to his confederates for support, whether coerced or willing. Under certain circumstances even the cruelest and most ruthless of regimes are vulnerable to upheavals near their core, and the political calculations of those involved in political intrigue of a potentially lethal nature are unlikely to be moved by strictly rational considerations of cause and effect. In short, political life even in authoritarian systems does not play itself out in a mechanistic fashion. Nor are the players in such systems immune to the influence of outside forces. Let us, for argument's sake, imagine that a president is threatened by international legal action for crimes either real or imagined. While this may strengthen his personal resolve to defy international opinion and persist in policies inimical to the restoration of civil and legal order, he cannot safely do this without due regard to the interests of those supporting him. There may come a time when some among his lieutenants regard him as a liability and threat to their own future welfare and decide that his is a sacrifice they are willing to make. Thus do odious regimes seek to remake themselves.

Alternatively, the threat of serious personal sanction may persuade the dictator to modify his behaviour, adopting a more reasonable public line in an attempt to refute the allegations of the prosecution.

There are many variants upon this theme, and the course chosen is unlikely to be unambiguous or constant. Part of this may be a result of the deliberate obfuscation of policy choices, but a great deal will also be the result of changing whims and circumstances.

It would be very useful to be able to say that so much concession on the side of justice would lead to so many gains on the side of peace, or vice versa, but the equation is never that simple.

Written by: Richard Cornwell, Senior Research Consultant, International Crime in Africa Programme, ISS Pretoria



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