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Displacement, Transitional Justice and Reconciliation: Assumptions, Challenges and Lessons


Interest is growing amongst researchers, policymakers and practitioners in the links between forced migration, transitional justice and reconciliation. This interest has been reflected in innovations such as the prosecution of arbitrary displacement as a war crime; the investigation of forced migration by truth commissions; the creation of restitution commissions; the provision of compensation to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); and support for grassroots ‘coexistence’ initiatives in communities affected by displacement. Provisions advocating the involvement of displaced persons in transitional justice and reconciliation activities have been included in scores of reports, resolutions, frameworks, laws and guidelines. Although they often remain marginalised in these processes, many refugees and IDPs have participated in these efforts as witnesses, claimants, “beneficiaries,” and leaders in the push for accountability.

Underpinning many internationally-supported efforts to address displacement through transitional justice mechanisms is the assumption that these efforts are conducive to the broader goal of reconciliation. Even when refugees and IDPs are compelled to return and lack the opportunity to participate in initiatives such as trials, truth-telling and restitution commissions, their return is often interpreted as a sign that peace and reconciliation are taking hold. A closer examination demonstrates that these assumptions are often untested or unfounded. In some cases talk of reconciliation is an empty gesture, or a concerted attempt to paint over persistent post-conflict problems, so that aid can be withdrawn and camps closed. In other instances, reconciliation is an offensive proposition, or a deeply held but elusive aim.

A growing body of research suggests that at their best, transitional justice mechanisms and grassroots coexistence interventions may foster reconciliation and have a significant positive impact on the accessibility and quality of durable solutions to displacement. However, they also carry a number of risks that may in fact undermine reconciliation and effective solutions to displacement. The purpose of this briefing is to explore the links between reconciliation, transitional justice and forced migration, bringing into focus the ways in which displaced persons figure in transitional justice processes, and the implications of this involvement for reconciliation. It explores some of the challenges associated with trying to advance reconciliation in post-conflict societies affected by large-scale displacement, and highlights some of the ways in which policymakers and practitioners have sought to support reconciliation between displaced populations and other actors. It analyses some of the assumptions that have characterised these efforts, and suggests ways in which the challenges surrounding the interface of displacement, transitional justice and reconciliation may be more effectively navigated. These include:

  • Aiming for increased clarity in programming and policy statements regarding what is meant by reconciliation, while recognising that preconceived definitions of reconciliation cannot simply be imposed on affected communities.
  • Ensuring that expectations of transitional justice and reconciliation programmes are clear and modest, avoiding the idealisation of return as a manifestation of reconciliation.
  • Looking beyond transitional justice mechanisms to recognise the critical contribution which efforts to increase security, reconstruct infrastructure, generate employment opportunities, and strengthen equitably accessible social services may make to enabling reconciliation.
  • Embracing a long-term approach to supporting the pursuit of reconciliation, justice and durable solutions, recognising that even relatively successful efforts to resolve displacement, redress past injustices and promote reconciliation may bring new claims and conflicts to the fore.
  • Carefully assessing the impacts of transitional justice and reconciliation initiatives on an ongoing basis, so that redress and reconciliation efforts can be recalibrated if necessary.
  • Calibrating efforts involving individuals and communities affected by displacement so that they support broader peacebuilding, transitional justice and reconciliation strategies, and social processes such as urbanisation and the evolution of more equitable gender roles.
  • Recognising that sole responsibility for supporting reconciliation in displacement-affected communities cannot simply be delegated to a particular agency—instead, a wide range of actors may need to be engaged and coordinated, including local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs); UN agencies involved in forced migration, peacebuilding, development, and rule of law; the International Organisation for Migration (IOM); the World Bank; governments from the municipal to national levels; religious leaders; and displaced populations.
  • Moving from platitudes to systematic efforts to equitably involve stakeholders directly affected by displacement, including refugees, IDPs, returnees, host communities, return communities, and secondary occupants, and promoting steps such as:
    • Consulting with displaced populations on the design of transitional justice and reconciliation initiatives;
    • Seeking the input of refugees and IDPs as witnesses in trials and truth commissions;
    • Convening truth commission sessions in camps or in countries with large diaspora populations, with a view to improving diaspora relations and strengthening external support for democratic and economic development;
    • Appointing displaced persons to positions of responsibility in transitional justice bodies and coexistence projects; and
    • Employing information and communication technologies to support the involvement of displaced persons in dispersed geographic locations, while respecting that the utility of such tools is limited by lack of access to advanced technologies and the need for ‘in person’ participation opportunities.
  • Acknowledging that although it is on the whole desirable for efforts to address past injustices to be as inclusive as possible, it may not always be possible to provide direct, material benefits such as financial compensation to vast numbers of displaced persons. Particularly where material benefits are limited, expectations must be carefully managed, which requires regular, clear communications with all stakeholders about the particular benefits being offered, their limitations, eligibility, timelines, and the distribution process.
  • Recognising both the positive role and the potential limitations of local or ‘customary’ approaches to advancing justice and reconciliation.
  • Questioning attempts to portray transitional justice and reconciliation as a matter of ‘turning back the clock’ or restoring the status quo ante. While remedies such as restitution may be critical, recreating the status quo ante is often simply impossible, and may be counter-productive, particularly when the status quo ante was itself highly unjust.
  • Continuing discussions, debate, reflection and research on the intersections between these issues, with a view to maximising the potential of transitional justice and reconciliation processes for individuals and communities affected by displacement.

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