Perspectives on International Justice and Human Rights

Linda Bishai

Linda Bishai
Senior Program Officer, Education and Training Center/International, United States Institute of Peace
"Will Truth Bring Peace or Justice?"

The Reckoning: Linda Bishai

The desire for justice and peace for the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity is clear and simple for the thousands of activists across the globe concerned with making human rights a reality. Unfortunately, figuring out how to bring either justice or peace to societies that have experienced these crimes is far from clear or simple. Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) has focused its attention on Darfur, the history of all of Sudan since independence in 1956 has been a violent one, with millions of lives lost and ways of life permanently affected. The civil war between north and south was one of Africa's longest and bloodiest, going through several phases and only ending in 2005 with an uneasy power-sharing arrangement. There were also sustained violent conflicts in Sudan's eastern region that recently came to a negotiated end. When a country has existed with war for so many years, it becomes difficult to know what kind of normality might even be possible.

People adapt to amazingly harsh situations; they put the violence out of their minds and get on with living. Many of them try to forget. After years of living with less than peace and less than justice, the people of Sudan have become accustomed to getting by without either. A return to the past is not an option, and for many it is difficult to imagine a different future. In this state of limbo, international concepts of peace and justice can seem like foreign impositions -- interventions with inappropriate or impossible models. Indeed, both peace and justice must be situation-dependent to take hold in a sustainable way. Each society must draw on its own abilities and its own traditions of justice to strike a balance between retribution and forgiveness that can form the basis for lasting peace. But if a country with recent and current conflict, such as Sudan, fails to make evident efforts to do so, it will handicap its own development and its progress toward a peaceful future.

Strong temptations and even incentives to push ahead with the practicalities of ending wars do exist. Deals are negotiated; power and wealth are dispersed to the former combatants; and all sides sweep the ugly excesses of violence under the rug, dismissing them as the unfortunate but inevitable side effects of war. Such haste may be understandable in the context of stopping terrible violence, as was the case with negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end the Sudanese Civil War. However, when there is a failure to account for the absence of trust and the absence of the basic assumptions of a peacetime society (such as promises kept), as well as a failure to consider mechanisms for accountability and established patterns of transparency, even the best peace agreements fail, because their partners simply do not believe that they can work. This is what is happening in Sudan today. The signers of the peace agreement, recently enemies, are supposed to govern the nation together. The agreement included no specific mechanisms for truth-telling, justice or reconciliation processes at a national level, but instead noted only that the parties would agree on something in the future. Coalition governments can be challenging even for well-established democracies at peace, but the government of Sudan is currently composed of parties that went from waging war to sharing governance without any reckoning of the collective impact of their conflict.

This is not to say that there are no incentives for cooperation between the former warring parties; in fact, given the sustained years of violence and the institutionalization of each party's view of the other as an enemy, the situation appears remarkably functional. Yet beneath their efforts to form a working government, the parties and their constituents remain psychological victims of a long war. There is no trust and there has been no public recognition of the suffering endured by the population. This leaves politicians with none of the social elasticity so necessary for negotiating politics in a diverse society. It also means that the nation does not have a shared basis for its historical memory of the conflicts. The "truth" for northerners, southerners, easterners and westerners (Darfurians) in Sudan will be remarkably different. Giving the people of Sudan a way to share their stories of war in a culturally acceptable but public way may not result in a single history that unites the country, but it will allow the members of a wounded nation to take the necessary first step of recognizing each other as fellow citizens with shared obligations and shared rights. One of the flaws of the north-south peace agreement -- a peace only for the leaders -- is perpetuated in the efforts to stop the fighting in Darfur. Without any truth-telling, justice or reconciliation processes from the earlier conflict currently in place, there is little momentum behind such a process in the Darfur negotiations. Sadly, this has left a marvelously diverse nation without its greatest strength: the recognition that it is far more powerful as a functioning cooperative whole than as the sum of its separated mistrustful parts.

Linda Bishai is a senior program officer in the Education and Training Center/International of the United States Institute of Peace. She focuses on secondary and university education in international relations, conflict resolution, human rights and peace studies, and she is responsible for curriculum development and developing faculty and teacher workshops throughout the United States and in conflict zones, especially the Sudan.
Previously, Bishai was an assistant professor of political science at Towson University. During 2003-2004, Bishai served as a Supreme Court Fellow at the Federal Judicial Center, where she worked on an introduction to international human rights law for the federal judiciary. She has also taught at Brunel University, the London School of Economics and the University of Stockholm. Bishai holds a B.A. in history and literature from Harvard University, a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics.