“In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.” - Albert Einstein
In Ireland, we expect our criminal justice system to ensure that those who are found guilty of crime will face consequences for their actions. We expect our laws to protect the vulnerable and ensure that victims of abuse in any form can seek justice. But what happens when the whole system of law and order breaks down? Or when corruption and abuse of power become the norm? What happens when a nation is plunged into civil war or suffers widespread human rights abuses? VOX magazine spoke with James Gallen, lecturer in law at DCU who specialises in issues of “justice” on a global scale, to find out more.
Tell us about your interest and experience in issues of global justice
My training and education is in law; looking at its role and limits in achieving social change, peace and justice. I did my Masters in the US and worked with the International Center for Transitional Justice. [Ed: Transitional Justice is the process of establishing appropriate methods to redress the legacy of large-scale human rights abuses.]
At the time, Nepal had signed its peace agreement and was looking to form a government. I served there by commenting on legislation for a truth commission, meeting with victims’ organisations to identify needs and priorities, and looking at best practice from other countries.
After six months, I returned to Dublin to do my PHD for which I also had the opportunity to visit East Timor and revisit Nepal. I had been studying human rights but being placed at the coalface, I learned to appreciate the “intimate” and personal nature of human rights violations. In formal legal language [describing what has happened] we can lose sight of the human cost of injustice.
What are the obstacles to restoration in places where there has been widespread injustice?
One of the biggest challenges is the temptation to make the perpetrator into the “other” - to demonise those responsible. While this seems logical [punishing those who have done wrong] this type of response can effectively continue the conflict. According to a 2008 study up to 40% of civil wars revert back to violence within 10 years of the original conflict [Collier, Hoeffler & Söderbom].
Both theory and reality show that in order to establish a lasting solution, societies need to find forms of peaceful coexistence. If we rebuild societies where there is an “other” - even if they are war criminals - it is unlikely that those societies can move forward.
This remains a big challenge. It is one thing to say it is necessary to create a shared future but it is another thing to ask people who have experienced horrific violations to consider these issues.
Moving on cannot be done cheaply. To do it meaningfully is extremely draining for people who have already been drained. The role of the international organisation or facilitator is not to own the process but to support the decisions of those involved even if they do not lead to stable outcomes or lasting peace.
What is the role of law in re-establishing a peaceful society?
Law seeks to change people’s behaviour, attitudes and perceptions. In Ireland, we value law that treats us equally and fairly; we believe we should not have different laws for different people. However, when the social and political fabric is no longer shared and when one group does not trust the other, it is difficult to expect law to work.
Law can facilitate structures for shared spaces and provide a form of acknowledgement to people who have been disenfranchised. It can highlight wrongdoing and establish a process for reparation.
But, at times, the law can reinforce a sense of injustice. It can re-traumatise people. During the Rwanda tribunals some judges treated victims abruptly while another judge fell asleep! If we fail to treat people with value and dignity, then the law’s response can be harmful.
How can principles of restorative justice be applied at the macro scale?
Victim and survivor-centred, restorative justice is the appropriate starting point. However, the reality in a conflict situation can be very different from that of a peaceful society.
When someone is murdered in Ireland, the family would expect the legal system to enact justice. But it is deeply questionable whether that assumption holds in a situation such as in Rwanda when up to 100,000 people killed hundreds of thousands in less than four months.
People will disagree about what justice requires but in reality we cannot always punish everyone who deserves punishment. We need another way but without simply letting people “get away with it”. It might mean adopting other forms of restorative justice such as truth commissions or reparations.
If we are serious and consistent about holding a victim-centred view, it is not for us to second-guess what a victim feels. It takes time to rebuild trust in the rule of law. We must not be too quick to dismiss the victim’s cry for punishment (there is a need to listen and to stand in solidarity) but we must also be aware that going with our gut is a bad basis for making policy.
Are there good examples of countries that have responded to previous conflict or human rights abuses in a way that is just and fair?
Until now it has been difficult for any one country to adopt the type of comprehensive approach that is needed. Usually, is it a question of resources. Justice is important but often politics and economics take precedent.
The South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a rigorous, expensive and powerful process building on the work of Latin American truth commissions. The TRC encouraged people to believe that the state was willing to address justice in a serious and principled way.
However, some have criticised its lack of response to the socio economic consequences of human rights abuses. (For example, a man who was tortured by having his legs broken not only suffered from physical pain but also became destitute because he was no longer able to work his land).
Since then commissions in Peru and East Timor have built on the lessons learnt in South Africa.
How does Ireland rate when it comes to large-scale issues of justice?
To my mind, in Ireland we have two ways of engaging with global justice. Firstly, we have an excellent reputation through the Good Friday agreement, although it would be important to consolidate that reputation.
Secondly, issues such as clerical sex abuse, industrial schools and the Magdalene Laundries have met with partial responses. We don’t want to be a society where injustices remain unmet.
It is important to see more debate and engagement with the political sphere from citizens and civil society, advocating for effective responses to issues of injustice including the past in Northern Ireland.
What does this mean for Christians in Ireland?
Studying these issues has re-energised my faith and made me question, what does it mean to do justice as a Christian?
Justice is something that permeates public discourse. What type of society do we want to be? My concern is that we need to have an active engagement in shaping that society. Doing justice as a citizen and as a Christian should be overlapping rather than contradictory.
We could take an active role by having more solidarity with victims of abuse [in all its forms]. When I am in solidarity, I am sharing the burdens of others.
As a Christian in a civic society, we need to be able to understand and defend the view that we don’t like and to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered, whoever they are.
When we have not suffered serious injustice or abuse personally, we need to be mindful of our position and privilege, and to adopt a posture of listening to the other person’s viewpoint. It may be that our role is to get out of the way.
We want to live in a society where the “other” is accepted. If we are trying to be lights to the world and live out that calling I don’t see how being hostile and combative is going to achieve that.
We need to consider the type of society we are creating if our beliefs are so fragile that they cannot withstand statements from another person’s point of view.
For further reading visit www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-transitional