Whose Truth, Whose Justice?

Religious and Cultural Traditions in Transitional Justice

by Landon E. Hancock and Aysegul Keskin Zeren
from Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace

Transitional justice mechanisms are typically created to aid societies moving from authoritarian rule or as part of a post-conflict reconciliation process. For the most part their construction reflects one of two trends that have developed in the wake of the Second World War. The first is the legacy of the Nuremberg Tribunals, established in order to reassert the rule of law and, to a lesser extent, to legitimize post-Nazi Germany’s government as separate from that which prosecuted the war and conducted the Holocaust.[1] The second is the rising use of truth commissions, originally used as alternative mechanisms when tribunals proved difficult or impossible to implement, but increasingly seen as valuable in and of themselves as mechanisms for inducing healing and reconciliation.[2]

Much has been written about the relative strengths of tribunals versus truth commissions. Which, for instance, delivers more justice? Which provides for more long-term reconciliation? Or how do both mechanisms operate in the same environment?[3] One area explored less often is the cultural relevance of each of these mechanisms and whether or not there is a “good fit” between any particular transitional justice mechanism and local cultural and religious traditions. A few studies have examined the role of religion itself—as separate from culture—focusing largely on the role of religion in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; but to date none has tackled the larger issue of culture.[4]

This paper seeks to problematize the role of religious and cultural traditions in transitional justice mechanisms, paying attention to the nature of local traditions, the extent to which they are reflected in the chosen mechanism, and the overall result in terms of meeting the stated goals and satisfying the affected populations. In doing so, we will apply portions of a framework developed by Julie Mertus to examine the effectiveness of international tribunals by matching their functions to interested audiences. Mertus’ examination compares six functions common to tribunals with the interests of three broad constituencies: the international community, local power brokers, and survivors, victims and bystanders.[5] Our examination uses Mertus’ ideas that transitional justice mechanisms have the ability to speak for and to serve different populations. However, since we are extending our examination beyond tribunals to encompass truth commissions and other local mechanisms, we are moving beyond her six functions to focus largely on the extent to which mechanisms receive the approval of different constituencies and whether a high degree of congruency between the mechanism and local religious and cultural traditions results in a higher degree of approval by survivors, victims and bystanders than those mechanisms that seem otherwise to be primarily serving the international community.

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