Uncovering Justice and Development Linkages

Alan Keenan is Senior Analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director for the International Crisis Group. He has worked in and on Sri Lanka for Crisis Group since 2006 and has done research on conflict and human rights issues in Sri Lanka since 2000. His academic work focuses on the politics of human rights, democracy and peace building as well as on the activities of local and international NGOs in the context of Sri Lanka’s quarter century civil war.

Dr Mohamed Sesay is a postdoctoral fellow with the Research Group on Global Justice of the Yan P. Lin Center for the Study of Freedoms and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds, McGill University. His research examines the complex interactions between global and local norms of justice, peacebuilding, and reconstruction within the context of societies emerging from armed conflicts, for example Sierra Leone.

Dr Chandra Lekha Sriram is Professor of International Law and International Relations at the University of East London, where she is founder and Director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict. She has published extensively on human rights, transitional and international criminal justice, conflict resolution, conflict prevention and peacebuilding in Central and South America, the Middle East and North and sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Eastern Europe.

This post is authored by the network members above to reflect on the work of the Justice, Conflict and Development Network, following the first three workshops in Colombia, Uganda, and Sri Lanka. The photographs were taken by network members during the workshops.

Why is research on the connections between justice, conflict and development necessary?

Given that these three broad domains are often treated in a stove-piped fashion, the first important step is to recognise how they are intertwined, in policy and programming. This helps clarify how each affects the other, positively or negatively. It may also help think through how concerns such as gender equality, land rights, and socioeconomic rights, among others, can be addressed in a holistic way.

For example, the situation in Sri Lanka has traditionally been thought of by policymakers in terms of its longstanding ethnic conflicts. At the moment, the specific focus is on the various forms of transitional justice proposed to respond to nearly three decades of inter-ethnic war. However, it is increasingly apparent that managing issues of development and its effects on land use and ownership in an equitable way will be necessary if new lines of conflict are not to emerge.

Similarly in Colombia, post-settlement development and land policy has been the subject of significant debate, forming an essential part of the government’s agreement with the rebel group FARC, alongside efforts to establish “territorial peace” as framed by the peace agreement to promote regional approaches, accountability for past abuses, and socioeconomic justice. The militarisation of territory and the occupation of land by various fighting forces – including the government, the paramilitaries, and rebel groups – has left a legacy of displacement, lack of clarity over access to land, and popular demand for land reform, including through the development of legal title for those who do not hold it. This is a particularly important issue for women, many of whom lack clear title to land after becoming heads of households through the death of their husbands or other male relatives.

Moreover, where the nexus between justice and development has been recognised, as in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the claim that these domains are mutually reinforcing is often faith-based rather than supported by empirical research. For instance, neo-liberal economic policies tend to be promoted on the assumption that they would ultimately increase the protection of socioeconomic rights in fragile and conflict-affected societies. At the same time, neo-liberal economic growth, which attracts foreign direct investment into local economies, may end up dispossessing local and indigenous communities of their farmlands and increasing environmental degradation, which in turn undermines socioeconomic and cultural rights. This is a risk, which critics of the Sri Lankan government’s liberalising economic strategy have raised increasingly.

It is also debatable whether the standard package of transitional justice institutions is suitable for capturing the legacies of structural inequality. These may require a broader conceptualisation of justice beyond redressing violations of civil and political rights. Our project is thus motivated by the need to empirically explore areas of convergence between transitional justice and equitable and sustainable development.


What are the most interesting/surprising things you’ve learned through the network to date?

Research to date, which has covered three of four case studies (Colombia, Uganda, and Sri Lanka), has provided comparative insights regarding the relationship between justice, conflict, and development processes with the following patterns standing out most prominently for us.

First, wars never simply end and they don’t start with clear beginnings. Thus it is necessary to unpack the continuities and deep structures of violence across different periods that are too often framed as distinct phases of pre-conflict, conflict, and post-conflict. It also requires attention to the multiple layers of conflict at the local, national, and transnational levels, and the many connections between them.

For example, Uganda is often seen as a post-conflict situation, but our visits there showed multiple layers of ongoing violence: continuing violence between militant groups (and occasional clashes between them and government forces), but also less acknowledged forms of violence by traditional authority figures. Also, the current violence is linked to unresolved historical conflicts related to Uganda’s independence and post-colonial liberation struggles. As an example of how a domestic conflict is transferred to neighbouring countries, government offensives against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda have displaced the conflict into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. If opportunity structures and the actors who use violence are not controlled or reformed, violence is likely to continue, even if it takes new forms. It remains a key empirical question what precise policy changes are most effective at ending or tempering recurring patterns of violence.


Second, domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence are often invoked as the consequences of war or post-war situations (e.g., vulnerability of women to ex-combatants, or as ex-combatants, or as female heads of households). This narrative tends to obscure that these forms of violence were often prevalent before war, and can produce policy responses that fail to address all sources of sexual and gender-based violence.

Third, in almost all of the project’s case studies, we are seeing the paradox of “transitional justice” (in rhetoric or practice) arriving in situations with only partial or incomplete political transitions. Colombia began implementing a transitional justice program before the conflict with FARC ended, while Uganda’s transitional justice agenda is driven by Yoweri Museveni’s government, which has been in power for more than 30 years. In Sri Lanka, many experts believe the window of opportunity for meaningful transitional justice has already closed, as constitutional reform, and highly ethnicised politics as usual, takes priority over accountability for grave crimes committed during the war against the Tamil Tigers. Some argue the ten-month nation-wide consultations in 2017 led to a fatal loss of momentum, as the government awaited the consultation report before finalising its proposals.

Lastly, we are discovering greater commonalities among the cases than initially anticipated. For example, the concerns of Afro-Colombians are reminiscent of the challenges of nation-building in most post-colonial African states where parallel social and legal structures (despite being deficient) remain more accessible to a significant segment of the population. During our workshop in Colombia, we met a local community in Montes de Maria to discuss issues of justice and development in rural areas. One of the striking questions posed to us by residents was how they could build a justice system, which is consistent with their African heritage and traditions, as they considered the state system to be inaccessible. In Northern Uganda, we found that while local processes of reconciliation are prone to abuse by traditional authorities, they are highly regarded as complementary to formal processes of transitional justice.

What further research needs have you identified through the network?

The interaction among practitioners and scholars across the network has demonstrated the importance of comparative work. We’ve uncovered a range of similarities and shared challenges across the different conflict-affected countries. Our collaborative work has also demonstrated the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to these challenges, including the potential for analysis drawn from one conflict situation to re-interpret in valuable ways established perspectives on other situations. The practice of our network may illuminate ways in which these different communities can generate new research in a number of areas. Several commonalities arise amongst countries examined here.

First, the militarisation of society. Societies in the midst of, or emerging from, protracted violent conflict, experience militarisation in a variety of forms, beyond the direct violence that is most obvious. Transitional societies are often subject to the expansion of fighting forces, both state and non-state, and the securitisation of discourse and practice in everyday life. This may be visible in many ways, notably in the form of expropriation of land for direct military use, or economic development by the military, or similar measures by non-state armed groups. This has emerged as an issue in the wake of conflict in Colombia, Uganda, and Sri Lanka.


Second, dual legal systems. While these take different forms in Colombia, Uganda, and Sri Lanka, they share some similarities. Specifically, they may entail different legal venues or even rules to regulate the conduct of religious minorities, indigenous populations and/or women. The different legal codes will have existed prior to conflict, and may have changed during conflict, and can complicate attempts to rebuild the economy and the rule of law in countries emerging from conflict. Further research is needed within and between our case study countries to examine the effects dual legal systems can have on different communities and regions, and whether and how these interact with peace-building efforts.

Finally, further research is needed on the impact of the global economy on the rural and indigenous communities that host the resources attracting foreign direct investment in agribusiness and mineral extraction. For low and middle-income countries, finding a place in the global capitalist economy is often considered necessary for economic development; however, there is little research into impact of global capital, particularly on the livelihood of indigenous populations and women, and on the conflict dynamics that remain active even after large-scale violence has ended.


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