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Book review – Transitional Justice

Starting a conflict, history shows, might be quite easy; ending it is undoubtedly harder. The most difficult, and in some cases even daunting, challenge for leaders and policy-makers, however is how to reconcile a country, or a community, which has experienced such a deep rift.
This is something that the citizens of many African states know more than well, for it is part of their daily life. The apartheid regime in South Africa is now a sad part of the history of that country, and northern Uganda, previously ravaged by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, is currently at peace: in both cases, however many consequences of those years (and, in some cases, even the root causes of the conflict) haven’t been addressed.

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Uganda and South Africa  are two of the countries mentioned in the recently published book Transitional justice in post-conflict societies in Africa edited by James Stormes, Elias Opongo, peter Knox and Kifle Wansamo, all of them Jesuits who have worked for the Hekima University College, in Nairobi, or for its offshoot, the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR). The volume collects a number of essays which were originally presented as contributions at a conference of the same title held at HIPSIR on 8-9 October 2014. At the time, the conference was presented as an attempt to stimulate the debate around the Kenyan Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission’s (TJRC) report, which – in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 post-election violence – was tasked with investigating gross violations of human rights and other crimes having taken place in Kenya since 1963. Also historical reasons, however, played a part in the choice of the theme.

giu 3Transitional justice, in fact, is both a key issue and a neglected one when coming to reconciliation. The main dilemma surrounding it has been well defined in the foreword of the book by Elias Opongo, director of HIPSIR: “The process is complex and requires a delicate balance of perspectives and actions (…). – the Jesuit writes – The common scenario of transitional justice in Africa and elsewhere has, however, often been the tension between protecting strong political and individual interests and fulfilling the justice needs of the poor and marginalized”. The means used to achieve the common goal of all reconciliation-through-law processes are also an issue whose impact on the result cannot be underestimated. Is justice only made in local tribunals and international courts? Or traditional institutions and practices may play a role in the process? What kind of reparations can be given to the victims? Transitional justice in post-conflict societies in Africa tries to answer such questions by looking at some of the 15 countries in the continent that are undergoing transitional justice processes and to some case studies from the past (notably South Africa).

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The authors of the essays and the editors are not afraid of dealing with controversial issues, above all the role of the International Criminal Court. Three essays (which means, an entire chapter out of five) are dedicated to this institution, examined both from the political and the legal point of view. The three authors (Serena Sharma of King’s College, London; Marek Jan Wasinski of the University of Lodz, Poland and James Nwayo, PhD candidate at the School of Law of Middlesex, Uk) do not share the same views, but all taken into consideration, the reader is given all the necessary element to develop his own opinion on the matter. The same intellectual honesty is shown by Jasmina Brankovic, who openly questions the results of the South African transition, often mentioned as a model for similar situations in the continent. Brankovic, however points out that, if the work of the Truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) was mainly successful, the political authorities of the new South Africa (and in particular the Mbeki administrations) did not follow up on the agenda set by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his co-commissioners. Nor they addressed those factors which the commission could not deal with because of its mandate, especially the socio economic inequalities that still influence the everyday reality of present-time South Africa.

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The book, however, is not simply about procedures, policies and mechanisms: the human factor is taken into consideration when the actors of peacebuilding are referred to. From this point of view, great attention is given to the role of women and of religious institutions. As for the latter, in particular, the experience of the Catholic radio network in what was Southern Sudan is put under the spotlight by Comboni sister Paola Moggi, its former director.
Generally speaking, the contribution of many different voices coming from the Church, the civil society, the academia and even high level policies (the opening essay of the book is authored by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa) is one of the main strengths of the book: it actually adds more perspectives to a work that manages to go beyond the stereotypes and gives additional vitality to an old debate. (F.G.)

James Stormes, S.J.; Elias Opongo, S.J.; Peter Knox S.J.; Kifle Wansamo, S.J. (eds.), Transitional Justice in post conflict societies in Africa, Paulines Publications, Nairobi 2016, 263 pp. 

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