Engaging conflict-generated diaspora communities in transitional justice

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Huma Haider is a research fellow in the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre. Her areas of interest include transitional justice in the context of peacebuilding; coexistence and reconciliation in divided societies; and the participation of refugees, IDPs and diasporas.  This post is based on a paper she recently presented at the international conference on Relationships between Diasporas and their “Homelands” and Their Impact on the State, National Identities, and Peace & Conflict at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon. The paper can be downloaded at: http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/1588/

In 2007, I worked at the War Crimes Chamber at the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on a case that involved the prosecution of the chief of the Omarska mine just outside of Prijedor.  In the summer of 1992, this mine and two other sites in Keraterm and Trnopolje were transformed into Bosnian Serb-administered concentration camps. Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Croats and other non-Serbs were detained in horrendous, inhumane conditions, with regular exposure to killings, torture, rape, beatings and humiliation. These camps formed part of the policy of ethnic cleansing.  Trial dates at the War Crimes Chamber and the ordering of witnesses were often based on and adjusted in order to accommodate the schedules of survivors from the Bosnian diaspora scattered around the world, travelling to Sarajevo to serve as witnesses. Their testimonies contributed to the gathering of evidence and to the narrative that emerged from the trial. The participation of these witnesses and survivors in the trials also had the potential to benefit their own individual healing and process of personal reconciliation.

Diaspora communities can play an important role in transitional justice processes. Transitional justice seeks to address a legacy of large-scale past abuses, and includes mechanisms such as criminal trials, truth commissions, memorials and reparations.  When effectively designed to include the disapora, such mechanisms and processes can contribute to addressing the needs of conflict-generated diaspora communities. However, there has been limited consideration of the participation of the diaspora.  Interventions to date have largely focused on populations remaining in the home country and on returnees.  Recognising both the importance of engaging conflict-generated diaspora in transitional justice processes and the gap that exists in this area in academic literature and in documented practice, I recently engaged in a scoping exercise to explore these issues.  I looked at how diasporas have been involved in transitional justice and potential benefits and challenges.

Diaspora participation in transitional justice

One way in which refugee and diaspora communities have been involved is in providing input to transitional justice strategies. The Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, for example, conducted interviews in 2011 with refugees in camps in Uganda to determine how refugee communities that fled the electoral violence in 2007 could be included in transitional justice processes.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (Photo credit: TRC)

Transitional justice mechanisms have in a couple of unique instances specifically incorporated refugee and diaspora communities in their design and implementation.  The most comprehensive effort to date to involve diasporas in all aspects of a transitional justice mechanism is the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (LTRC). The Commission held a series of public hearings in cities overseas with a strong Liberian diaspora presence and took statements from members of the diaspora.

Diaspora communities themselves have also mobilized to initiate transitional justice initiatives or to further ongoing processes. The Haitian diaspora community effectively pushed in the 1990s for the establishment of a truth commission for Haiti.  Another way that diasporas have been active is by pushing for justice through universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction legislation in various countries in Europe has provided the possibility of prosecution for serious human rights violations committed anywhere in the world, particularly where the home country justice system is unable or unwilling to prosecute. Chilean Argentinean and Rwandan diaspora communities have relied on such legislation in attempts to have criminals arrested while present in Europe and tried.

Potential benefits of diaspora participation

There are various potential benefits to engaging diasporas in transitional justice. These include diversity of perspectives; more comprehensive truth gathering; greater international awareness; and the potential for addressing societal divisions within diaspora communities.

Surveying a range of perspectives is important to designing and developing transitional justice processes and mechanisms that meet the needs of the diverse populations affected by violent conflict. Diasporas may have different yet meaningful needs that should be expressed in the formulation of policies and in the operation of transitional justice mechanisms. Additionally, the act of listening to and incorporating the voices of diasporas and refugees who were forced to flee their home country can be beneficial in terms of psychological healing.

The participation of diasporas in transitional justice mechanisms can also contribute to more comprehensive gathering of evidence and truth-telling, contributing to greater effectiveness of such initiatives. In the case of trials, diasporas have comprised a significant number of witnesses in international criminal tribunals and in national courts in the homeland, such as the War Crimes Chamber in the State Court of BiH – providing essential testimony and evidence.

Diasporas can also play an active role in outreach and awareness-raising in their host country. The mere involvement of diasporas around the world can garner greater media attention and raise awareness in host countries of transitional justice processes and mechanisms and situations in the homeland.

Transitional justice processes and mechanisms that incorporate diasporas may also have the added benefit of highlighting and addressing divisions and trauma in diaspora communities. The Liberian truth commission revealed the divisions and residual hostilities and tensions present in many diaspora communities. Further, the final commission report formally documents the need for community reconciliation initiatives to be implemented among the diaspora. The Commission’s outreach events in the U.S. also contributed to the initiation of dialogue amongst divided Liberian diasporas.

Potential challenges with diaspora participation

Alongside potential benefits, there are various potential challenges with the involvement of the diaspora that need to be recognised and addressed.  A key challenge is how to deal with divergent perspectives between the diaspora and populations living in the country of origin on issues of peace and conflict, recovery strategies, transitional justice and reconciliation; and how to forge links between the populations. The growing independence of some diasporas can lead to the development of interests, opinions and needs distinct from those of the local homeland population.  Moreover, homeland populations may resent the input of the diaspora, particularly if they perceive them as having escaped much of the violence and suffering in the home country and living comfortably in the host countries.

Collaborations between the diaspora and populations in the homeland can be essential to addressing divergences in opinions between the communities and also to improve the effectiveness of transitional justice initiatives. Diaspora and local organisations should coordinate their work to avoid working on the same projects in parallel and to ensure that actions are complementary.

It is important to recognise that while some members of the diaspora will mobilize to engage in transitional justice and peacebuilding, there are many others who are unlikely to get involved on their own initiative.  Hostland initiatives such as the provision of grants to fund homeland recovery projects by diaspora organisations, which has taken place in various European host countries, can be implemented to create incentives for such transnational activities.  Homeland policies can also facilitate diaspora engagement. The hearings that the Liberian truth commission held in the host countries enabled and encouraged the participation of Liberian diaspora, particularly those who were unable to return to Liberia due to immigration status or insufficient resources; or those who would have been unwilling to make the emotional, physical and financial investment to return to the home country to take part.

The engagement of the diaspora in transnational activities cannot be encouraged blindly, however. In some cases, diaspora communities may be less divided and they may harbor more reconciliatory views of the other. However, in other cases, a diaspora community may be deeply divided, nationalistic and conflict-oriented.  In such cases, providing the space for members to influence the homeland could be de-stabilising. In order to engage in informed interventions, it is important to assess the conditions of diaspora communities. Efforts should be made to address those that remain divided and nationalistic. This is necessary for the healing of the diaspora communities themselves and also such that they can be transformed into a potential source of peace for the homeland. In some cases, the participation of diasporas in transitional justice may be sufficient support for diasporas to move forward in processes of reconciliation. In other cases, other reconciliation-oriented initiatives, such as dialogue and media initiatives, aimed specifically at promoting such processes may be needed alongside.

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