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Taking stock: what have we learnt from the first six months?

BLOG SERIES: Justice and peace, Security and justice sector development

In the past six months, Saferworld and the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law have hosted a blog series on ‘Justice and Peace,’ which has sought to explore the links between people’s experiences of injustice and violence across a range of fields. As the series will continue for another six months, this contribution seeks to highlight some salient themes arising thus far. Given the diversity of the posts to date, this is of course easier said than done; any attempt at a synthesis can only do limited justice to the separate pieces in their own right. With that in mind, let’s first briefly review what the blog series was meant to do and the contributions to date.

The introduction prepared by Saferworld noted two intentions informing this blog series: 1) to put ‘justice’ at the centre of policies across multiple, interconnected fields, and 2) to draw in a wider array of actors (and issues) in the process of building peace and justice. The introduction called into question the narrow conception of ‘justice’ that tends to prevail in much policy and practice and equates it with retributive justice dispensed through the criminal justice system. It suggested that legalistic approaches alone are insufficient to address people’s justice and peace needs, and raised several questions for consideration: about maximising the potential offered by the rule of law; addressing injustices through fairer environmental, social or economic policies; the influence of pervasive gender roles and dynamics; and about injustice as a motivator of violent behaviour.

In response, the subsequent blog posts to date have covered a number of issues in relation to peace and justice. A few what we might call ‘familiar’ ones focus respectively on preventing violence through the rule of law (by Alejandro Alvarez); on lessons learned from justice programming to date, especially in relation to access to justice (Lisa Denney); and on gender and injustice (Monica McWilliams and Avila Kilmurray). Whether the last is truly a ‘usual suspect’ may be subject to debate of course, but gender and the exclusion of women do feature at times in peace and justice-related discussions, even if only to deplore the state of affairs and call for more attention to gender considerations. The series has also covered two issues less regularly considered in this context: environmental justice and climate change as a form of violence in itself (Jason Hickel) and role of cities and public space (Wendy Pullan). Finally, it has tackled an issue rapidly gaining priority in recent years: countering violent extremism and the extent to which experiences of injustice may be a driver of such extremism (Leanne McKay).

Reviewing these contributions in conjunction, at least three overall themes stand out. These concern our understanding of ‘justice’; the limitations of existing policies, programming and frameworks; and the political nature of efforts geared to enhance justice, security and peace.

In terms of the first theme, how we conceive of justice, several blog posts lend credence to the claim that it may be useful if not outright necessary to reconsider how we understand ‘justice’. These posts reflect that justice is not only – or perhaps even primarily – a product generated or distributed by the state’s formal criminal justice institutions. As such, they echo an observation by legal sociologist Marc Galanter, who noted in 1981: “Just as health is not primarily found in hospitals or knowledge in schools, so justice is not primarily to be found in official justice‐dispensing institutions.” And years before, Eleanor Roosevelt had expressed a similar sentiment about human rights, arguing that these begin in “small places, close to home – the world of the individual person, the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

As the blog posts testify, experiences of justice and injustice are found in many realms beyond the domain of criminal justice and law enforcement, and arise in everyday interactions – in how people are able to participate in decisions affecting their lives, provide for their families, sustain their livelihoods, move around in public space, interact with others, and engage with formal and informal institutions governing their daily existence and future paths. This notion of ‘justice as the everyday’ corresponds to a broader ‘turn to the everyday’ in contemporary peace and conflict research – see for example the everyday peace indicator project of the University of Manchester, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation South Africa, and George Mason University. This project explores how issues of conflict and peace play out in people’s daily life, by studying how community members identify changes in their circumstances that speak to them of peace, and what this means for peacebuilding efforts. This turn to the everyday is a response to the way in which peacebuilding practises and programming have become more technocratic over the years, relying on set toolboxes, off-the-shelf solutions, and approaches informed by conditions and practices in the global North and imposed in the global South.

It may therefore not be surprising that a second theme emerged that regards the limitations of existing policies, programming and frameworks. In discussing the rule of law, Alvarez highlights the need to look beyond technical fixes that involve building the institutional capacity of formal justice and security institutions but fail to address the political, behavioural and cultural issues that shape people’s experiences with these institutions (including institutional cultures and values, i.e. the ‘software’ of institutions). McKay decries the technocratic, top-down, state-centric approaches embedded in the UNSG’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, while McWilliams and Kilmurray denounce the continued exclusion of women from peace talks and subsequent implementation processes. Denney reminds us that we should recognise the prevalence of legal pluralism to a much greater extent than we have done to date. Finally, Pullan questions the role of legal solutions in relation to conflicts in urban settings, and Hickel points out that we lack the legal framework that is needed to address the violence of climate change.

In sum, doing more of what has been done for years is not going to address the pervasive peace and justice challenges people face – especially if we fail to reflect on what we have learned, what has not worked, or if we fail to consider how our world is changing. This is of course not to suggest that formal justice institutions or the existing legal and policy frameworks do not matter. It is however to accept that they cannot be our sole response to addressing – and redressing – experiences of injustice, as they only cover part of what people experience as injustice. 

The third theme, the political nature of justice and security, relates to power, resources, and opportunities. Speaking of the 3Ps of people, power, and politics, McKay stresses the rule of law as an inherently political activity that revolves around the relationship between state and society. Denney emphasises how justice goes to the heart of how power is divided and exercised within a given society. Politics and power also feature in the other posts, sometimes more implicitly. Consider for example Pullan’s reference to measures by authorities that restrict public space and often focus on specific ethnic groups, Alvarez’ mention of obstacles in the justice and security sectors that foster discrimination, and Hickel’s discussion on who is responsible for climate change and who is a victim. The power of definition surfaces clearly in various posts: what do justice indicators actually measure and what gets left out (Denney)? How come that the violence of climate change is not regarded as a crime (Hickel)? And pay attention to the way in which certain issues get defined as ‘women’s issues’ that slip into the private sphere and disappear from policy-making – even if this concerns the representation of the many in society who happen to be female (McWilliams and Kilmurray).

This primacy of the political implies a need to consider the historical, cultural, political and social dynamics behind experiences of injustice and to question who benefits from maintaining the status quo, or from prioritising the form of justice over its function. It also implies a need to become much more savvy about engaging with resistance to change; as several authors point out, resistance will be forthcoming when substantive change initiatives get underway (Denney; McWilliams and Kilmurray). Closely related are questions of political economy, arising especially from McKay’s and Hickel’s blog posts: what gets funded, by whom, on what grounds – whose needs and concerns gain priority in resource allocation? This corresponds to an emphasis on thinking and working politically that has emerged in recent years in the context of ‘doing development differently’; a recent application to rule of law reform you can find here.

So, where does this leave us? Let me offer one overall observation arising from the blog series, and some questions that flow from that. What arises is the suggestion that we may need to consider justice (and security) as more complex, contingent and contextual than we have done to date. How people experience injustice and justice differs from context to context and as such their justice needs are likely to differ too. Yet it is clear, as Graeme Simpson has pointed out before, that people’s lived experiences of insecurity and injustice are indivisible: their experience of violence, poverty, corruption or exclusion, cannot really be separated and tackled through different intervention tracks (in the way rule of law/ violence prevention/development/etc. interventions are usually organised). Also, various experiences of injustice and insecurity are usually layered atop one another, leaving specific individuals and groups in society disproportionally exposed to them.

In addressing these interdependent, indivisible and multi-layered experiences, it would be wise to start from where people are at: their everyday activities and interactions. Amongst other things, this requires that we pay more attention to the social contract between people and the state – while recognising the relevance of non-formal institutions and engaging with hybrid forms of governance, too. It requires us to accept that justice and security relate not only to the civil and political concerns that have traditionally been privileged in efforts to enhance justice and security, but also to social-economic concerns and matters of service delivery.

It also requires us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of justice: one that appreciates justice not just as a normative framework of legal rules, but also values its relational and process-oriented dimensions, and the way in which justice manifests in political, cultural, economic and social structures and institutions.

Inevitably this series raises various questions, five of which are outlined below.

  1. What are the ramifications of broadening our understanding of justice and of considering justice as more complex, contextual and contingent than we have done to date, and what would that look like in practical terms? In focusing on people’s lived experiences, ‘injustice’ may well come to encompass anything and everything – which runs the risk of undermining the very concept and raises the question of its added value. Or does it? After all, similar questions arose when the traditional concept of ‘security’ was challenged in the 1990s for its state-centred nature. Yet the ensuing discussion resulted in an appreciation of the importance of human security that had not existed until then. At the very least, broadening our conception of justice should allow for a conversation about what constitutes ‘justice’ work, and the relevance of understanding this in broader terms than what has traditionally been conceived as such – rule of law work, justice sector reform, access to justice programs. 
  2. If more contextual approaches are needed (and let’s be honest, that message has been around for some time), can this be only done through small initiatives? How does that relate to the tendency in development assistance to concentrate more resources in bigger programs, channel funds through fewer organisations or institutions, and copy-paste successful programs ‘because they worked so well?’ Aside from scale, issues of timing and prioritisation arise too; the indivisibility of people’s experiences of injustice does not prevent that choices must be made about what will receive attention (and resources) first – which brings us back to questions about who decides, on what basis, and who stands to benefit from such decisions. There is also of course the question of what is possible given the contextual conditions at hand – which may put good intentions about careful design and consultation to the test.
  3. In addition, how do we balance the need to facilitate immediate relief with the need to work towards structural change? And can we live with ‘incrementalism’ when we know there is so much to be done, and the need for large strides and big progress remains?
  4. Recognising the political dimension of efforts to enhance justice raises questions about the extent to which actors in this arena are willing to take an honest look at their own practices – how reflective are we? How willing are individuals and organisations working on ‘justice’ to challenge donors (and/or whose nationals they may be), about the extent to which they – or we – contribute to experiences of injustice elsewhere, whether in the form of climate change, unfair trade practices, arms sales, and power imbalances in global governance arrangements? Much as we may recognise the importance of fostering more trust and confidence in the relationship between state and people, any calls to work in this direction may ring rather hollow if we do not recognise the damage to social contracts wrought by past and present neoliberal policies
  5. How can we get better at working across sectors and specialisations and make this the rule rather than the exception? The 2011 World Development Report called for much more interdisciplinary practices but it is questionable whether we have much advanced since then. Working across sectors and specialisations is much easier said than done, given the siloed way in which work on peace, justice and security is still often organised in bilateral and international institutions (and many civil society organisations, too). Practitioners and policy-makers working on these issues tend to use different analytical frameworks, have specific ways of approaching problems faced by people, communities and societies – and do not necessarily agree on what is considered the ‘problem’ nor a suitable response. Competition for resources and policy influence is not uncommon either and strong professional identities may get in the way too. I must admit to already finding it more challenging to process Hickel’s and Pullan’s blog posts (on environmental justice and just cities, respectively) than the contributions that cover issues I am more familiar with. And yet, working across sectors, silos and specialisations is necessary if SDG 16 (and others) is to come to fruition.

Admittedly, few – if any – of these questions are new. Yet their significance cannot be overstated. All in all, the blog series to date makes a convincing case for reconsidering the prevailing notion of justice and exploring what efforts to address people’s lived experiences of injustice and insecurity would constitute.

This entails entering into conversation with a broad range of actors, including those whose perspectives and approaches are very different to our own. Having worked on the interface of human rights and justice with conflict transformation and peacebuilding for years, I have learned that working across silos and specialisations is facilitated by, amongst other things, a recognition that different perspectives and approaches are valuable in their own right (they highlight various aspects of a complex reality and expand the range of options for action), and by a willingness to listen, ask questions and engage with ideas that may feel alien or odd, to reflect on the limitations of what one has been doing to date; and to be flexible, patient and humble.

Michelle Parlevliet is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts (CRIC) of Copenhagen University, in a project on Human Rights and Peacebuilding jointly undertaken by CRIC and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Since 1995, she has worked as a practitioner on the nexus of human rights and conflict transformation in various capacities and contexts, with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Centre for Conflict Resolution (Cape Town), the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (in Nepal), the World Bank (Indonesia), and other organisations and networks in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Western Europe. Having published widely on this theme and related topics, she obtained her doctorate from the University in Amsterdam in 2015 based on a dissertation drawing on her practical work and previous publications. 

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The blog series to date makes a convincing case for reconsidering the prevailing notion of justice and exploring what efforts to address people’s lived experiences of injustice and insecurity would constitute.

Michelle Parlevliet

The opinions expressed in articles or comments on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Saferworld. Saferworld is not responsible for the accuracy of the information in blog articles written by guest contributors.

Please note that comments on blog posts are moderated, and anything offensive or threatening may be removed.

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