Monday, February 9, 2009

Whose Peace, Whose Justice? [Updated 2/12]

So riddle me this: how much justice are you willing to sacrifice for peace? Rob Crilly over at African Safari has a squib about whether we should let warlords off the hook if they're willing to go quietly, or risk continued fighting for the chance to put their punk asses in jail. It's one of those rare questions that is at once philosophically pregnant and real-world relevant. Crilly traces the roots of the question back to the seemingly eternal division in Western philosophy between a utilitarian and a Kantian, rule-based ethics. He also suggests that the closer you are to events, the more you favor the utilitarian.

As you might imagine, there's a whole truckload of literature about these questions. But I find myself getting impatient with how they're typically answered, for two reasons. First, the people answering them rarely seem to consult the people most deeply affected. I know it's an immensely difficult challenge, but surely we ought to have a much deeper and better understanding of Darfuri or Sierra Leonean preferences. A good argument could be made that their wishes ought to be the controlling factor in making these decisions. [Update 2/12: A valuable exception is this example from the International Center for Transitional Justice, although I suspect there are methodological difficulties inherent in this sort of survey that it doesn't fully address.]

Second, we often act as if terms like peace and truth and justice were unproblematic--cultural universals that we can all agree on. In practice, this results in a kind of cultural imperialism: our view of what counts as peace or truth or justice prevails, because we're the ones with the money. In fact, these terms are far from universal. A brilliant effort to understand how people in Sierra Leone feel about these issues is Rosalind Shaw's Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Lessons from Sierra Leone. In it, she argues that we (the West) have unthinkingly imposed upon Sierra Leone a particular social practice that arose out of our own, highly idiosyncratic cultural history, a practice that may cause more harm than good in the Sierra Leonean context:
# Sierra Leone's TRC, like South Africa's, valorized a particular kind of memory practice: "truth telling," the public recounting of memories of violence. This valorization, however, is based on problematic assumptions about the purportedly universal benefits of verbally remembering violence.
# Ideas concerning the conciliatory and therapeutic efficacy of truth telling are the product of a Western culture of memory deriving from North American and European historical processes. Nations, however, do not have psyches that can be healed. Nor can it be assumed that truth telling is healing on a personal level: truth commissions do not constitute therapy.
# In northern Sierra Leone, social forgetting is a cornerstone of established processes of reintegration and healing for child and adult ex-combatants. Speaking of the war in public often undermines these processes, and many believe it encourages violence.
A thriving subdivision of anthropology focuses on the provision of medical services to non-Western peoples. We need a similar, joint effort between anthropologists and lawyers--both Western and native--to focus on the questions at the intersection of justice and peace. Because something tells me that the situations that occasion them aren't going to disappear any time soon.

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