L. Kent u.a. (eds.): Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Asia and the Pacific

Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Asia and the Pacific.

Kent, Lia; Wallis, Joanne; Cronin, Claire
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Katarina Ristic, Global and European Studies Institute, Leipzig University

Recently, we have been witnessing a growing scholarship that is critically evaluating and challenging some premises of transitional justice mechanisms and models, based on the assumed universalism of human rights norms. This research has been expanding to include post-colonial approaches, structural injustice and economic empowerment, as well as new actors and alternative justice projects. The volume by Lia Kent, Joanne Wallis, and Claire Cronin adds to this literature, challenging some basic assumptions about the role of civil society in transitional justice processes. Much of the existing literature deals with the monolithic – that is to say, secular – civil society, which is supporting transitional justice efforts as a part of transnational human rights project.1 Against this background, the volume looks at a variety of civil society organizations, including faith-based community organizations, and the way they contribute to different transitional justice processes in Asia and the Pacific.
The topic itself is not completely new: ten years ago, Aaron Boesenecker and Leslie Vinjamuri questioned the assumed support of civil society for the norms and practices of transitional justice, which characterized previous research, and showed that local organizations often support alternative justice processes.2 These organizations might also re-evaluate the type of justice and kind of redress needed, for example advocating forgiveness rather than accountability, or restorative justice and truth telling.

Focusing on Asia and the Pacific, the edited volume provides a collection of ten chapters that address the diversity of civil society within and beyond nation-states and their initiatives and responses toward transitional justice processes. The chapters are divided into three parts, starting with Timor-Leste and Indonesia, then addressing continental Cambodia and Myanmar, and finally looking at three Pacific Islands – Bougainville, Solomon Islands, and Fiji.

Following the tradition of volumes published from exchanges during international conferences, the book is a loose rather than systematic collection of chapters, which thematize the model and practices of transitional justice. In her own chapter on Timor-Leste, Kent announces the aim to expose “the limits of the globalized, standardised model of transitional justice”, instead inviting a rethinking of the transitional justice project as an “open-ended social and political process” (p. 23). The case under examination – victims’ organizations in Timor-Leste – directly challenges the assumption that civil society operates within liberal, human rights agenda. Instead of civil society that is composed of victims’ organization, justice and reconciliation processes are primarily conducted through everyday activities within the extended family, such as efforts to recover remains of family members and reburial rituals, in a kinship-based society like Timor-Leste. In the second chapter, Damian Grenfell provides a complementary insight into the Timor-Leste transitional justice project, focusing on different initiatives ranging from truth commissions to criminal prosecutions. Contrasting activities of civil society with the perspective of state actors, he shows that much of civil society activism remains “grounded in the national imaginary” (p. 49), thereby diverging from expectations of emerging global civil society and transnational justice.3 The third chapter in this section, by Ken Setiawan, addresses equally disappointing transitional justice processes in Indonesia. Focusing on the digital narrations about the past trauma by second-generation victims’ relatives, he shows the unfulfilled need of new generations not only to know and remember but also to explore new tools for connective action in digital environment.

The second section of the book looks at transitional justice in Cambodia and Myanmar, the former heavily influenced by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC), a hybrid criminal court established in 2003 via a governmental agreement with the United Nations. Christoph Sperfeldt and Jeudy Oeung explore the essential role that civil society has played at the Khmer Rouge trials, as well as their advocacy and early outreach, which was followed by the capacity-building of the court, having led to a decrease in international funding for these organizations. One such non-governmental organization (NGO), the Bophana Centre, is addressed in the chapter by Rachel Hughes, investigating the contribution of artists to the process of transitional justice and to furthering public dialogue about the past. Looking at the activities of the centre – from exhibitions to public events and film screenings to study tours – Hughes sees the Bophana Centre as the central NGO supporting the ECCC and promoting memory about the past in Cambodia. Contrary to the vibrant activities of civil society around the ECCC in Cambodia, Catherine Renshaw’s chapter on Myanmar captures troublesome “transition without justice”, where even the most basic initiatives to end impunity are rejected under a threat of instability. With the state strongly undermining transitional justice initiatives, civil society organizations – both Christian grass roots organization and international human rights organizations – are essential for recording human rights abuses and collecting testimonies for the future.

The third section deals with three Pacific Islands (Bougainville, Fiji and Solomon Islands), and four chapters in this section address the tension between local traditions and values and the international human rights discourse. Wallis examines local grass roots organizations and social practices and their contribution to reconciliation and peace in Bougainville, revealing mixed success. Exploring further the topic of traditional customs in post-conflict context, Volker Boege looks at the local reconciliation practices, emphasizing their emotional and spiritual dimensions while voicing criticism about their commercialization and superficiality.

The last two chapters in this section address different attempts to translate the international human rights discourse for the local setting. Building on the concept of vernacularization, developed by anthropologist Sally Engle Merry 4, David Okashot looks at teachers as mediators of human rights in educational institutions. Impressive empirical analysis based on participant observation and interviews reveals not only a high level of resourcefulness among mediators in the process of mitigating two local practices – corporal punishment and child labour as disciplinary measures at schools – but also a context in which children are absent from school in order to secure food or because imprisonment for drug dealing might end up with the death of the child in prison. The chapter clearly shows how the Western idea of transitional justice in education – for example, critical thinking and questioning authority – is translated completely differently into this context. Building on the same theoretical approach, Cronin addresses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Solomon Islands, investigating how religious civil society organizations contributed to the confusion of expectations and norms underlying the establishment of this transitional justice mechanism. She explores criticism and the appeal of the TRC, which, as she concludes, failed to “touch hearts” of people partially due to the mixing of legal, human rights, and religious discourses.

To conclude, the volume provides an overview of transitional justice practices in Asia and the Pacific, which is rich with examples of the different roles civil society might play in transitional justice processes – from supportive and mediatory to competitive or even hostile. The distinction between international human rights organizations, grass roots organizations, and religious organizations demonstrates not only the set of different actors and their engagement in the field of transitional justice but also different concepts of justice and norms, enriching our understanding of the global transitional justice field. Importantly, it points out that human rights, as the lingua franca of international organizations, must be rethought in relation to local norms, customs, and practices when investigating societal processes. Finally, the chapters also attest that these translations are troublesome and full of tensions, while often leading to productive exchanges, showing that diversity of actors and multiplicity of voices might enrich the transitional justice processes.

1 David Backer, Civil Society and Transitional Justice: Possibilities, Patterns and Prospects, 2003; Marlies Glasius Kaldor, Mary and Anheier, Helmut K (eds.) Global Civil Society Year-book 2002, edited by Marlies Glasius / Mary Kaldor / Helmut Anheier (eds.), Global Civil Society 2002, Oxford 2002;
2 A. P. Boesenecker / L. Vinjamuri, Lost in Translation? Civil Society, Faith-Based Organizations and the Negotiation of International Norms, in: International Journal of Transitional Justice 5 (2011), pp. 345–65.
3 Marlies Glasius / Mary Kaldor / Helmut Anheier (eds.), Global Civil Society 2002; Mary Kaldor, Global Civil Society.
4 Sally Engle Merry, Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle, in: American Anthropologist 108 (2006), pp. 38-51.

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