The Crises and Consequences of International Justice

Photo by Peter Dixon / Djugu Territory, Ituri District, DRC

Early on in my dissertation fieldwork in a region in the DRC, I was attending a workshop for NGOs who were implementing victims’ assistance projects. An NGO chief stood up and described his experience providing goats to victims of sexual violence during the conflict. They soon became known, he said, as les chèvres des violées: the goats of the raped women. The ways that international donors, peacebuilders, and justice organizations conceive of their beneficiaries, especially in contexts of extreme violence, and the ways that people experience their interventions can have dramatic differences and significant repercussions.

This book manuscript draws on survey research, in-depth interviews, and participant observation in The Hague, the DRC’s Ituri district, and Colombia to unpack these crises and trace their consequences on the ground for victims and affected communities.

Contrary to assessments of victims as a mere rhetorical concern of global justice, or as strategic partners for international investigations and outreach, victims have been central to the struggles of the international justice field to consolidate its autonomy and overcome fundamental sources of illegitimacy. These sources are both political and jurisdictional. The ICC’s political challenges are well understood and stem primarily from its threat to state sovereignty. Its jurisdictional challenges are less obvious: on the one hand, they are comprised of gaps and contradictions between victims’ own experiences and the ways that justice organizations frame the violence they lived through; on the other hand, they are motivated by the need of the international justice field to distinguish itself from established fields like development and peacebuilding, which are often better equipped to respond to the realities on the ground in conflict settings.

Organizations like the International Criminal Court and Colombia’s national victims’ unit have packaged goods as either judicial reparations or humanitarian assistance to manage the boundary between the international justice field and its neighboring, non-legal fields. While seemingly a technical issue, the practice of combining reparations and assistance exposes tensions at the heart of transitional justice: between the legal strictures of redress and the complex realities of violence; between the supposed symbolic power of reparative justice and victims’ experience of reparations in practice; and, ultimately, between states’ transitional justice processes and their broader development priorities.

These tensions have fueled debates over the boundaries of transitional justice. Some argue for more expansive notions of justice that are sensitive to local context, respond to economic violence, seek redistribution, or transform social relations. Others see transitional justice as fundamentally legal or corrective, cautioning against overreach. While scholars largely agree on the importance of—and obligation for—reparations in transitions from violence, stark divisions remain as to how best to conceive of their relationship to justice. Much of this debate, however, lacks a solid empirical base and has remained largely normative. This book brings much needed empirical data to advance these debates through the lived experience of communities after war.

%d bloggers like this: