Presentation of Traditional Justice and Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences

6 February 2008
Brussels, Belgium

Transitional justice paradigms have moved from a de facto dichotomy (amnesty versus trials) to multiple conceptions of justice after transition. Diane Orentlicher, the United Nations’ independent expert on combating impunity, recently wrote: ‘Given the extraordinary range of national experiences and cultures, how could anyone imagine there to be a universally relevant formula for transitional justice?’ This shift has opened up ample space to discuss the role of tradition-based justice and reconciliation practices. At first, there was a great deal of myth making, of discussing ‘invented traditions’. The mood changed as soon as the results of empirical studies started to circulate. Normative approaches are now gradually giving way to more realistic, empirically-based assessments of the current and potential role of these mechanisms within the broader policy framework of justice after transition. The ambition of this study was to develop even more realistic insights.

Do indigenous conflict resolution tools have an added value in times of transition? The answer is a cautious ‘yes’. They are not sufficiently effective, and their legitimacy locally and internationally is not assured. The case studies have, however, demonstrated that tradition-based practices have the potential to produce a dividend in terms of the much-needed post-conflict accountability, truth telling and reconciliation that is not negligible. Some of the rituals, such as the cleansing ceremonies in Sierra Leone and northern Uganda, seem to be successful in reintegrating and reconciling surviving victims and ex-combatants, particularly former child soldiers. In Mozambique victims and offenders have used old models of healing and reconciliation to develop new rituals that are better suited to the actual post-conflict circumstances. Removing tradition-based practices from the transitional justice toolkit is thus not an option.

This view reminds us of the many challenges that await if local and international stakeholders in earnest want to adopt and adapt tradition-based practices in their dealing with the legacy of civil war, genocide and oppression. One of the challenges is the blending of various strategies of justice after transition. How do these strategies interrelate? How can interpersonal and community-based practices live side by side with state-organized and/or internationally sponsored forms of retributive justice and truth telling?

Let me summarize our findings by quoting one of the authors, James Latigo. He writes: ‘Neither glorifying these local practices as the only cure nor relegating them to the realm of the devilish is helpful to people seeking assistance in their suffering. It is only prudent to acknowledge the positive potential of traditional rituals and beliefs, not as contradictory to or competing with other approaches but as complementary to them. To ignore or discard traditional ways that have been seen to work in the past makes no sense. On the other hand, they cannot provide the cure for all ills’.

About the Speaker

Luc Huyse