Understanding the Relationship between Justice and Development in Conflict-Affected Countries

Kirsten Ainley is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on the history and development of international criminal law, international political theory, human rights and humanitarian intervention. She is currently the Principal Investigator of the ESRC Strategic Network on Justice, Conflict and Development, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, and of the Hybrid Justice project.

Below is a Q&A on the work of the Justice, Conflict and Development Network, following the publication of the Global Challenges Research Fund Protracted Conflict conference summary report.

Why is this research particularly necessary?

One of the most pressing challenges for many less-developed countries is how to achieve and maintain peace. Conflict makes development in any form (be that economic growth, poverty reduction or increased human rights protection) extremely difficult to achieve. This has been recognised by international organisations and aid donors, and much development assistance is now directed towards conflict resolution in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. This network focuses on one of the main ways in which states and the international community now approach conflict resolution: the promotion of justice initiatives. The use of ‘transitional justice’ (TJ) – judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses – including trials, commissions of inquiry, reparations and amnesties, has increased markedly since the 1990s, with justice seen as a way to end conflict and achieve societal reconciliation. Academic research has attempted to assess the impact of TJ on peace and development, but has produced inconclusive, even contradictory results. This leaves a significant research gap to find out what the real effects of TJ are upon peace and development – it is this gap that we are starting to fill.

What is the research looking to achieve?

The Justice, Conflict and Development network is motivated by a desire to better understand the relationship between justice and development by focusing on four conflict-affected countries (Colombia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Uganda). Each of these states (or opposition groups, in the case of Syria) is currently making decisions on what kinds of TJ institutions to build, often under pressure from the international community, but without robust evidence about the likely impacts of their policy options. By bringing together academic and practitioner experts, plus civil society project partners, we aim to develop interdisciplinary research agendas to understand the interactions between TJ institutions and development in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. To achieve this aim, the network objectives are 1) Develop ambitious and impactful comparative research agendas on justice and development in Fragile and Conflict Affected States; 2) Synthesise, map and disseminate existing research and identify knowledge gaps, including by engaging alternative sources of knowledge; 3) Foster interdisciplinary engagement by capacity and relationship building; 4) Engage policy makers, advocacy groups and publics in case sites and elsewhere.26804545_10215489424891393_9196883931401070273_n

What patterns have emerged in the research to-date?

We have met in Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka so far, and have picked up a number of interesting themes. The first is the way that the identity of ‘victim’ of conflict can be powerful if used in creative ways. We didn’t expect this as the victim status post conflict is often seen and experienced to be dis-empowering, yet groups in Colombia in particular have organised around the victim identity and gained power by doing so. We have also noticed the key role that land ownership plays post-conflict – in Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka land ownership, restitution and allocation are a key part of post-conflict politics and development, yet they are rarely considered as part of transitional justice programmes. And finally, our visits to Montes de Maria and Cartagena in Colombia, Gulu and Kitgum in Uganda and Dambulla, Trincomalee and Sampur in Sri Lanka have underscored the necessity to get out of capital cities while conducting overseas research. The NGOs and policy makers in capital cities often have very different experiences of conflict than those who live outside, and sometimes very different ideas of which post-conflict justice and development policies should be pursued.


What has been the highlight of the project so far?

The highlight of the project so far has been being part of a new team with people who are incredibly smart, highly committed to their work, and keen to contribute to improved justice and development policies. We have faced some small challenges together – aggressive elephants in Uganda being the most memorable – and through spending three weeks together, in three case sites, we have developed strong friendships and professional connections which have already led to co-publications and to a further major research grant application. There has, tragically, been a low point: we lost one of our network members, Vijay Nagaraj, in a car accident this summer. Vijay was an extraordinary man who left an indelible impression on anyone who knew him even for a short time. He was kind, clever, humane and politically engaged, and our project is diminished by his loss. His work in this field is tremendous, and listed here, alongside tributes to him from the network members.

What is it like ‘on-the-ground’ in the countries you are working with?

As a network, we are committed to speaking to people who are affected by conflict, and by the justice and development policies intended to alleviate the harms brought by conflict, with a view to generating detailed comparative knowledge. This means visiting the countries we study: Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka, or getting as close as we can in the case of Syria. The main activities of the network are four workshops, all in the case sites (or nearby), in which all network members meet with each other and with key actors in the justice and development fields. So far, we have visited Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka, and in May 2018 we will meet in Lebanon to discuss the Syria case. The workshops are largely organised by those network members who work in the country locations, and we have therefore had an excellent level of access to a wide range of actors. At each workshop, we meet academics, civil society actors and politicians in the capital cities and in areas more severely affected by conflict.


Conflicts are no longer active in Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka in a conventional sense, but people are still under threat – particularly human rights activists. In Colombia for instance, we met with human rights activists who have body guards to protect them from the high incidence of attacks on rights defenders in the country. We also drove through areas which until only recently had been controlled by armed groups, which meant that the populations there were prevented from getting to market or travelling for work. In Sri Lanka, human rights activists are also under threat (though not murdered with the same frequency as in Colombia at the moment), meaning we are careful not to publicise the speakers at our events too widely and try to hold closed-door sessions with people who would rather their participation in our events stayed private. Fortunately, in Uganda, we did not hear about threats to those trying to build peace and some level of subsistence in the north, but the impact the conflict still has in the region is clear. Thousands of children are still missing, and the lack of young people is both a tragedy for families, but also an additional economic hardship in an area which is already extremely poor, as the loss of children means no one to tend land or earn for the family as parent’s age.

What does success look like in ten years’ time?

We are primarily concerned with the ways in which the impact of post-conflict justice and development policies is evaluated. There is a high level of disagreement in the literature about what the impacts are of transitional justice mechanisms (trials, truth commissions, reparations schemes and so on) and various kinds of development policies. We intend, through comparative work, to understand in more depth the impacts of different policies in the four cases we focus on, with a view to researching a greater number of cases if we are successful in obtaining further funding. In the next decade, it should be possible for researchers in the field to map out the impacts and interactions of justice and development policies in specific cases and to draw comparisons with relevantly similar cases. This should enable countries emerging from current and future conflicts to take informed decisions on which approaches to dealing with past conflict and confronting development challenges are most likely to lead to stable peace.

An earlier version of this blog post originally ran on the RCUK Blog site here.

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