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Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice

On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, Dr. Inga Winkler, a prominent figure in the human rights community at Columbia, began the event “Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice” by introducing Tine Destrooper.

Destrooper is the director of the Flemish Peace Institute and an associate professor at Ghent University. Previously, she has been the managing director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU’s School of Law and a fellow at the Wissenschaft-Kolleg, Berlin.

The event’s focus: a new research project, focused on victim participation in transitional justice which is set to begin next year, and to be completed in five years. The project was created due to the ever-growing influence of transitional justice around the world. Effectively, this greater influence has engendered a rapid implementation of transitional justice frameworks. Such a rapid implementation can oftentimes lead to problems such as uniformity which fails to recognize country-specific conditions.

To set the stage, Destrooper made sure that everyone in the audience understood the meaning of transitional justice. “Transitional justice, in a general sense, is justice in times of transition” she explained. Transitional justice typically is understood to have four pillars. They are criminal justice, truth commissions (which establish a record), reparations (monetary or symbolic), and institutional reform. Destrooper highlighted that this structure has largely focused on “looking at the world in a forward way, which limits how much we are delving into the past.”

Yet, transitional justice makes us think profoundly on how we define punishment and its alternatives. It is a system that has been implemented, as Destrooper shared, to create the infrastructure of liberal state-building.  It aids in setting policies such as rule of law, democratization, among others. Effectively, this puts the international community in a special place as having international observers in justice processes is crucial to its enforcement.

Destrooper then began to problematize one of the pillars of transitional justice – truth commissions. While truth commissions were started largely in Central and South America, their methodology is now being applied by others, such as the Aboriginal communities in Australia. Her main criticism centered on the increased expectations that we now associate with truth commissions, and transitional justice at large, yet the little to no change that has been implemented to our methodology and resources. Regarding this, Destrooper reflected that “post-authoritarian states in Buenos Aires where the root of atrocities lies in an overbearing want of power by leaders cannot be compared to South Sudan or Yemen whose root problem is social chaos.” It has created a sense of uniformity in the face of institutionalization.

To elaborate further, Destrooper spoke about another pillar – criminal justice. This pillar usually takes the shape of legal trials which condemns the actions of individuals who enact the atrocities in question. However, Destrooper not only recognized the legal importance of these trials, but also the aspect of truth-setting. Trials host instances of public record, which can have strong rhetorical power.

One of the main problems, which Destrooper highlighted, was the way in which we understand which rights we think transitional justice can apply to. Though historically, civil and political rights have been perceived as closer to core ideals and understandings that make up the foundation of international law and thus merit prosecution, we fail to recognize that economic, social, and cultural rights have just as much validity in these processes of justice building.

One of the tensions which Destrooper noted was a prevalence of civil and political rights in the discourse of human rights amongst NGOs and other human rights bodies, yet local actors and leaders seem to advocate more strongly for economic, social, and cultural rights in their communities. If we want to ensure a more stable and just society, we need to have local actors more aware of the systems. Thus, the participation of victims in the process is important as it ensures ownership and sustainability, legitimacy and responsiveness, and empowerment within communities.

However, these victim-centered approaches can be problematic in certain regards. They are aspirational and do not always take the practical elements of what life is like for victims on the ground. This is often a criticism of prominent human rights scholars – that transitional justice has been focused too heavily on the reconciliation processes and on “moving forward” that it does not allow for victims to process their trauma.

This is where Destrooper’s project can make profound differences in the human rights world. Her project proposes three main aspects – mapping, impact, and framework. Under mapping, Destrooper proposes to recognize the scope, role, finality, and evolution of transitional justice and answering the question of what has been done? Under impact, Destrooper would focus on the effect that transitional justice has had, how it factors in context, and which causal mechanisms were utilized. These would be measured using four case studies in the following countries- Cambodia, Guatemala, Tunisia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under the framework, Destrooper’s team would assess the different impact on different kinds of victims in different contexts.

Because rhetoric in discourses is crucial to understanding, Destrooper wants to highlight the power and effect of narratives and how people make sense of their experiences with atrocities. Narratives further shape people’s ideas of accountability.

Destrooper understood that there will be obstacles that she is going to face in her research. One of them being the language barriers, which she will try to overcome by working with local researchers and translators who have a solid understanding of the realities of the four countries of the case studies. To further access reports in different languages, Destrooper is working with coders to develop a server that can include all of the necessary reports in their native language she will need to accurately access information.

Participation of victims is something that needs to be profoundly understood, which is precisely the goal of Destrooper’s project research proposal. She states that she is not for or against victim participation in transitional justice, but wants to investigate more of the dynamics and mechanisms used and how they could be improved in the future. With the results of the research, Destrooper’s goals are to give back to the localities which are affected by the research in a way that is locally-relevant and meaningful.

This research has the capacity to be incredibly impactful and meaningful for both human rights institutions and local actors, as it would reveal where we can improve in our mechanisms to ensure that justice is truly met in periods of transition.

By Jalileh Garcia

Rural Women’s Human Rights: Challenges and Opportunities

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a M.I.A. candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

The sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62), the largest UN gathering on gender equality, took place from 12 to 23 March at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The priority theme of this year’s session was rural women, specifically “challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.”

The side-panel “Rural Women’s Rights: Challenges and Opportunities” was held at the UN Church Center on March 23, 2018. // IWAC

While global leaders, representatives from 170 member states, NGOs, and activists convened for two weeks of official meetings at headquarters, the conversation continued unofficially in panels and side events around the city. One of these side panels, sponsored by the International Women’s Anthropology Conference, took place at the UN Church Center as the official proceedings of the 62nd session came to a close on Friday, March 23. The panel’s focus was the importance of organizing rural grassroots women and the significance of the rural grassroots movement to achieve improvements for rural women and girls

RightsViews reported live from the panel, which featured four speakers including leaders of grassroots movements and human rights scholars. The panel was moderated by Sheila Dauer, the former director of Amnesty International USA’s Women’s Human Rights program and a faculty member of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

The panelists talked on a range of issues, covering women’s social and economic rights, and acknowledging realities of discrimination and violence that challenge rural women’s empowerment on a daily basis. Two of the speakers have worked at the grassroots level organizing women farmers, one organized Dalits (members of the lowest caste in Nepal), and the final speaker worked at the UN-level on water and sanitation issues.

The first speaker was Maria Luisa Mendonca, who has done grassroots organizing in Brazil and specializes in agricultural systems, rural movements and natural resource conflicts. The founder of the World Social Forum and director of Brazil’s Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, she is currently a visiting scholar at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She emphasized the big picture, noting that the challenges of rural women are operating within much larger geopolitical conflicts including competition for mining resources, land, water, and oil. In order to empower these women, she argued, we need to connect their experiences with issues of concern to us all, including promoting formal property rights, land use access, housing, and general empowerment.

Panelist Bishnu Maya Pariyar recalls her childhood as a member of the lower Dalit caste in Nepal. // Ashley Chappo

Pointing to Brazil, she indicated that subsistence agriculture is a largely invisible segment of the economic data, with only large-scale agriculture counting in GDP. This reality limits opportunities for rural women, who would benefit from greater advocacy for subsistence agriculture in data systems, she said. In Brazil, women also face additional challenges such as displacement by private militias favoring monocrop agriculture.

The next speaker, Mary Lily, is the chair of the Women in Agriculture Platform in Ghana and vice chair of the Women Farmers Movement. Her grassroots activism has advocated for unpaid care work recognition, redistribution, and women’s representation.  She spoke about some of the diverse challenges faced by rural women in Ghana, including domestic violence, sexual harassment and high rates of teenage pregnancy. In addition, she pointed to access to land for productive use and access to water as big problems facing rural women. In a rural community of 5,000 people, for example, she said there are only two borehole wells. The solution? Collective action: regional groups need to come together to create a unified platform, engage with chiefs of communities, and get by-laws written. Furthermore, she said, poverty should be eradicated.

The third panelist, Bishnu Maya Pariyar, recalled her childhood as a member of the lower Dalit caste in Nepal and the challenges that led to her current advocacy work for domestic violence victims as the president of the Association for Dalit Women’s Advancement of Nepal (ADWAN), which she founded at the age of 20. ADWAN works to support marginalized communities in Nepal by fighting caste discrimination and building grassroots organizing, human rights training and development.

Mary Lily, chair of the Women in Agriculture Platform in Ghana and vice chair of the Women Farmers Movement, speaks during the panel. // Ashley Chappo

She told the story of her life as an activist, which began when she was just 10 years old and witnessed a local woman crying as her husband beat her because she was a Dalit woman. Pariyar saw the need to find tools to empower similar women and bring the different castes together to address common issues for women across the caste system, including problems such as domestic violence and gender discrimination. She called for greater representation of grassroots women in the UN system and at next year’s session, with more efforts made to translate discussions and get the women to the meetings despite visa challenges.

The final speaker, Inga Winkler, a lecturer in human rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, turned the conversation closer to home for Americans. As the legal advisor to the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, her talk focused on rural women and sanitation rights. She spoke about women in the rural United States, where poverty is an issue due to structural conditions and discrimination. She cited rural Alabama as an example, where one sparsely-populated county is 70 percent black with an average income less than $30,000. In this community, there is no municipal sewerage, so many of these women rely on septic systems or on-site sanitation systems, which they are expected to install despite little income, leading them to instead rely on piping systems that drain into cesspools on their property, creating health hazards.

Following these brief remarks by the panelists, moderator Dauer turned the discussion to a final question and answer session, which reiterated many of the main points of the conversation. The speakers agreed that the takeaway theme of the discussion was positive change comes from collective power; “when women work together, they can accomplish a lot.” Rural women should be brought to the table for important conversations so that they can be empowered and their concerns heard.

Ashley E. Chappo is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She concentrates in human rights and humanitarian policy and specializes in international conflict resolution. She is editor of RightsViews. 


A Defense of Dignity

By Joseph Chuman, a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

With dark forces clouding the political horizon, both domestically and globally, defense of fundamental freedoms has become stridently urgent. While some may prophesy or lament the end time of human rights, the drumbeat of illiberalism requires an even more robust enunciation of the human rights program. Those striving to consolidate greater power in the hands of state executives may seek to swat aside human rights as an annoying manifestation of political correctness, but it is good to remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged out of the nadir of European fascism. The response to darkness is not despair, but the bright light of civility and decency, which are conveyed most powerfully by human rights and the ideals that it reflects.

At the heart of human rights is respect for the dignity of human beings – without exception. If asked to summarize in briefest terms the purpose of the human rights program, one could probably do no better than respond by stating that the aim of human rights, whether safeguarding immunity from violation or entitling the resources necessary for human flourishing, is respect for and protection of human dignity. The Universal Declaration begins with the words. “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity…of all members of the human family…” And “dignity” is mentioned seven times as the norm that must be met for the realization of human rights, for both political and economic rights.

Despite its centrality to the human rights program, there is surprisingly little discussion about the meaning of dignity in the human rights literature. Yet its meaning is contested, and I would argue that some conceptual understandings of dignity are preferable to others, if human rights are to enjoy the strongest protection. There are at least three plausible approaches to dignity: one partially historical, a second, philosophical, a third, cultural.

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Two recent books, both brief but scholarly in their treatments of dignity, highlight differences. Jeremy Waldron, University Professor of Law at NYU in Dignity, Rank and Rights, argues that dignity, understood as a universal concept, did not start that way.  Examination of dignity’s historical genealogy reveals that it has been associated with a person’s social status or bearing. In Roman times, dignity referred to honor, privileges, or deference due to a person issuing from rank or office. According to Waldron, the dignity due a person of high rank underwent a transvaluation in late-eighteenth century romantic poetry, wherein such dignity associated with aristocracy was seen as bogus or superficial, and it was the person of low rank who became dignified. This is but one example of the universalization of the concept of dignity, which underlies its usage today. So, in Waldron’s words, “the modern notion of human dignity involves an upward equalization of rank, so that we may now try to accord to every human being something of the dignity rank, and expectation of respect that was formerly accorded nobility.” In the realm of dignity, we are all aristocrats now.

A contrasting view is presented by Harvard Professor of Government, Michael Rosen, in his work, Dignity. Rosen elaborates on the more conventional position that modern notions of dignity can best be traced to the Enlightenment, especially the ethics of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, dignity is an inherent attribute of all human beings exclusively in that we are rational agents. For Kant, ethics and the supreme moral law, the Categorical Imperative, emerges from reason, which in its transcendental freedom postulates moral laws to which human beings choose to be obedient. It is this autonomy which also dictates that the human person is an end-in-himself, whose humanity requires respect. Kant further affirms that all things subject to our use possess a value, which is relative to the one doing the evaluating and to context. But human beings alone possess dignity, which is absolute. For Kant, again, dignity is universal, and has a Platonic resonance that isolates it from questions of social contingency. Dignity is a thoroughly ahistorical concept. Both Waldron and Rosen elaborate with extensive analyses and applications of these variant derivations for dignity – social rank, and transcendent universalism.

One might argue that the placement of dignity in the idea of social status and as historically malleable renders it less secure and more open to manipulation as social currents themselves change. Yet I would maintain that grounding the origins of human rights in these two respective approaches makes little practical difference. The Universal Declaration by intent presents no foundation for the human rights it proclaims. The defense of its origins never need rise to the surface. Rather the Universal Declaration affirms a consensus that, once accepted, can find pragmatic application in the world of political strife and struggle.

However, there is a third conception of dignity that embeds the notion in a cultural context. As such, it is radically different, and I believe can be erosive of the human rights project, especially in the contemporary environment characterized  by increased nationalism, parochialism and a resurgence of group rights articulated within the framework of religio-ethnic particularisms. It is an expression of dignity very much subject to social contingencies.

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Dignity in this sense can be defined as a felt attribute constructed out of a person’s fittedness to her or his distinctive cultural milieu. It can serve as an index of particularist identity. This understanding is most evident in the relationship of human rights to the religions. In various instantiations of religiously grounded rights, there need not be a contradiction between human rights and religious precepts. The doctrine central to Judaism and Christianity, that the human being is created in the divine image and all people share a kinship as children of God, can corroborate the value of dignity by rendering the human being a sacred component of the cosmic order. But at the same time, divine command as delivered to different faith communities can impose a highly differentiated notion of dignity that undermines its universal character.

For example, Professor of Religion, David Novak, of the University of Toronto, notes that in Judaism human dignity emerges from the capability of being able to respond to God’s commands. Needless to say this would not do for an atheist or freethinker. But beyond that it suggests that one’s dignity is tied to one’s identity within a specific cultural milieu, for divine command cannot be abstract or devoid of particular substance.

Take for example the issue of male circumcision, which periodically become an issue of debate within the human rights community. Defenders of the need to respect dignity as put forward by Waldron and Rosen, might argue that male circumcision is an affront to the dignity of the child undergoing the procedure because it is a violation of his autonomy, is painful and in addition is essentially irreversible. However those relating dignity to the confirmation of identity within a community, and herein a religious community united under divine law, might argue that not to circumcise is a violation of the dignity of the child. It robs the individual of a dignity-informing place as a member of the community, and therefore deprives him of a mainstay of his very identity.

Such a culture-bound definition of dignity clearly has its merits and can be argued on its own terms. Yet, from a human rights perspective it may readily feed into a vicious form of cultural relativism and summoned as an argument to defend that relativism, thus undercutting the essential universalism required for human rights to be sustained as such. While remaining sensitive to the complex elements of culture and identity, on balance it is hard to see this as a good thing.

We are at an historical moment when reactionary forces are on the march and minority groups suffer greater denigration and too often find themselves the victims of xenophobia and scapegoating. Tragically and paradoxically, the very sensitivity to cultural difference which argues for tolerance has metastasized into a highlighting of difference characterized by fear and hate-mongering. It is time when those committed to human rights need to recommit themselves to the defense of human dignity — as a universal value — wherever it is oppressed or violated, and do so without apology.

Joseph Chuman is an adjunct professor of The Institution for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  He has taught the introductory course and an elective in Religion and Human Rights since 2001.