by Rhodri C. Williams
Last week, I announced the publication of a new book on Displacement and Transitional Justice and provided an overview of some of the main themes touched on in my chapter on restitution in humanitarian and transitional justice contexts. My basic conclusions were twofold: First, that restitution has come to the fore in humanitarian practice not only due to its practical utility as a means of facilitating durable solutions to displacement, but also as part of the adoption of rights-based approaches by humanitarian actors. And, second, that restitution may actually be a more comfortable fit in transitional justice practice, given both the latter’s more direct concern with redressing violations (as opposed to ameliorating resulting vulnerability) and its political emphasis on sustainably transforming societies.
I wanted to return to these themes because I believe it is crucial to acknowledge the difficulty of drawing any tidy conclusions in any of these areas or even assuming that well-intentioned international forays into their post-conflict application are always effective. In fact, both transitional justice and humanitarian responses to displacement remain contested terrain, and one of the challenges in writing on restitution in this context was the need to deal with challenges to the legitimacy and effectiveness of both fields while describing a tactic for addressing past displacement – restitution – that has also become mired in controversy.
The whipsaw nature of these debates is exemplified by comparing recent commentaries on their fallout in Africa, and specifically Uganda. First, in a 2009 press release, the Refugee Law Project of Uganda’s Makerere University welcomes the recently adopted African Union ‘Kampala Convention‘ on internal displacement as “an important step towards clearly recognising the role of transitional justice in resolving forced migration situations”. The drafters of the press release made this connection in light of the Convention’s inclusion of reparatory measures meant to “take stock of the causes of and redress the violence of displacement.”
However, two years later, Makerere University visiting scholar Adam Branch wrote in Pambazuka to excoriate both concepts. While the earlier Makerere University press release and Branch’s later critique represent diametrically opposed viewpoints on the potential for international discourses to address local atrocities, I believe that they are also intimately linked. In essence, the Makerere statement represents the type of expectations – both realistic and unrealistic – that humanitarian responses to displacement as well as transitional justice measures tend to be burdened with. Branch’s article, by contrast, represents the tendency to dismiss both categories of measures when these expectations fail to be fully met.
This dichotomy of responses raises a number of familiar dilemmas. At a broad level, it invokes the risk that any international engagement always bears, namely that attention may be diverted from the primary responsibility of domestic actors to guarantee respect for human rights. Assuming that international engagement is unlikely to grind to a halt tomorrow over this moral hazard, a more practical dilemma involves how international actors and standards can make a positive difference without raising expectations that exceed their capacities, mandates and resources. In analyzing this question, it may be helpful to undertake a closer reading of Branch’s critique.