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The Role of Religion in Transitional Justice

The past generation, also known as the “age of transitional justice,” has witnessed over forty transitions from authoritarianism to democracy since 1974 and a flood of civil wars.[i] While the Nuremburg Trials set the precedent of bringing war criminals to justice, the past three decades have witnessed an upsurge in a global effort to —in the vocabulary of post-genocide Cambodia—“break the silence” and help conflict-ridden societies come to terms with their past. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Rwanda’s gacaca courts and the ongoing Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) are all examples of differentiated forms of transitional justice at work.

Transitional justice can take shape in the form of truth commissions, international tribunals, reparations as well as civil society-led initiatives that include memorials and the documentation of historical records for future generations. Daniel Philpott from the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies describes transitional justice “as the sum total of activities that states and citizens undertake to redress past political injustices in order to restore political orders in the present and in the future.”[ii]
Transitional justice can however, be split into the two distinct categories of retributive and restorative justice. Retributive justice focuses on the legal and procedural conception of justice, holding criminals accountable, therefore providing victims a verdict of the perpetrator’s guilt. Restorative justice on the other hand, focuses on the needs of victims and offenders while actively involving the former and encouraging the latter to take responsibility for their wrongdoings. The key difference between both categories of justice is the notion of reconciliation.
By focusing on the punishment of offenders as a precondition for reconciliation, Mark Amstutz notes that the restorative justice model “emphasizes the political healing and restoration of communal relationships.”[iii] Reconciliation is therefore deeply related to forgiveness, a concept emphasized in religious precepts and traditions. According to Philpott, “Religious people are arguably largely responsible for making reconciliation a fixture in today’s global political discourse.”[iv] The relationship between reconciliation and religion and its rise as a political force in the transitional process has nevertheless been relatively unexplored by scholars and academics.
Abrahamic Traditions and Reconciliation
There is no doubt that the concept of reconciliation has deep religious roots. Christianity, for example, teaches not only to love ones friends, but also ones enemies unconditionally. To love unconditionally also implies to forgive. R. Scott Appleby furthermore explains that, “Religions are capable of providing a cultural foundation for peace in their respective societies. Drawing on their intimate knowledge of the myths, beliefs, and deepest feelings of people shaped by religious cultures—including people who may no longer practice the religion in question—religious leaders are poised to promote peace-related values…”[v] Since a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation is respect from both sides, and religious leaders’ beliefs require them to be impartial, they are often endowed with moral authority that makes them legitimate guides to peace and reconciliation.
One example is Peacemaker Father Alex Reid who in 1993 brought together Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and his rival for nationalist political leadership, John Hume of the non-violent Social Democratic Labor Party. The subsequent negotiations led to cease-fires between the paramilitaries, which opened the way for the historic Good Friday Agreement—a power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Catholics.
Philpott argues that the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have offered the majority of religious arguments for political reconciliation in the past generation. “Religious rationales for reconciliation, at least those in the Abrahamic traditions, derive their prescriptions for horizontal relationships within political communities from the vertical relationship that God forges with humanity—a relationship whose history and character is recounted in their scriptures.”
Reconciliation was arguably most strongly emphasized in the purpose of South Africa’s truth commission. The commission chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought religious customs and dialogue into the hearings. He ensured that the voices of both victims and offenders (including their families) were heard while heavily involving the public through the media. Religious communities contributed to reconciliation by giving their support to the hearings. Prayers and hymns opened and closed the hearings.[vi] While the incorporation of religion into the proceedings elicited both criticism and praise, the Chilean ambassador to South Africa lauded:
“Sitting at the hearings held at the central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg some time ago, watching Archbishop Desmond Tutu say a prayer and Alex Boraine call on some of the witnesses, I could not help but reflect that this would have been unthinkable in many countries where the separation of church and state is taken seriously.”[vii]
Buddhism and Reconciliation
While most scholars have focused on the role of the Abrahamic faiths in the reconciliation process, one often overlooked religion that has helped victims come to terms with the past is Buddhism. In the case of Cambodia, where 95 percent of the population consider themselves Buddhist, victims of the genocide have turned to the very religion that the Khmer Rouge actively tried to exterminate throughout the era of Democratic Kompuchea. In a society where victims and perpetrators currently still live side-by-side, many Cambodians have approached justice by turning to Buddhist values and precepts that teach forgiveness and karma.
For Buddhists, forgiveness is a practice that prevents the growth of harmful and negative thoughts from impeding one’s mental well-being. It is necessary to forgive, because feelings of ill-will and hatred will have a lasting effect on one’s karma.
A former monk, Kong Suor used the precept “vindictiveness is ended by not being vindictive” to help him accept the suffering he endured under the Khmer Rouge and to prevent him from hating those who committed crimes against him.[viii] Another victim, Mom Sareoun lives in a village with a medic who, during Democratic Kompuchea, refused to treat her illness because she claimed her ailment was emotional instead of physical. Now, whenever Mom Sareoun sees her she thinks of the Buddhist saying, “don’t bite a leech back.”[ix]
These are examples of victims who have used Buddhist precepts to exercise compassion and forgiveness while controlling their impulse toward vengeance. Suzannah Linton notes that, “many of Cambodia’s spiritual leaders have spoken about how a fair judicial process is consistent with the teachings of the Buddha, and some even link it with national reconciliation.”[x] Thus Buddhism has also been used by some Cambodians to supplement the ECCC’s legal efforts to provide justice, maintaining pressure on the court to conduct fair trials, thus allowing cycles of vindictiveness to be broken. Maha Ghosananda, a spiritual leader nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, argues that reconciliation “does not mean that we surrender our rights and conditions,” but instead that “we use love” to address these questions.”[xi]
Across a number of war-torn societies, from Cambodia to Northern Ireland, religion has played an influential role in helping victims reconcile with their communities. Religious precepts are not only valuable in helping the wounded come to terms with their past, but also teach principles of forgiveness, acknowledgement of suffering, remorse and apology. These values help catalyze a full restoration of peace after conflict, healing the scars of those who have endured torture, pain and suffering under brutal, oppressive and authoritarian regimes. These are voices that are often neglected and left unheard in the shadow of silence. 
– Nastasia Bach, Religion and Conflict Resolution Intern

[i] Philpott, Daniel. “What Religion brings to the politics of transitional justice,” Journal of International Affairs, Fall/Winter 2007, vol. 61, no. 1. p 93.

[ii] Ibid, 94.

[iii] “Restorative Justice, Political Forgiveness, and the Possibility of Political Reconciliation,” Ch.
6 in Politics of Past Evil Religion, Reconciliation, And the Dilemmas of Transitional Justice. ed. Daniel Philpott , New York: University of Notre Dame P, 2006, 165.

[iv] Philpott, Daniel. “Religion, Reconciliation and Transitional Justice: The Rise of the Field.” Social Science Research Council, 2007.

[v] Appleby, R. Scott The Ambivalence of the Sacred, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers:1999, 169.

[vi] Philpott, Daniel, “Introduction,” in The Politics of Past Evil, ed. Daniel Philpott University of Notre Dame 2006, 4.

[vii] Philpott, Daniel, “Beyond Politics as Usual” in The Politics of Past Evil, 32.

[viii] Bach, Nastasia and Meredith Deane, “Breaking the Silence: Achieving Justice and Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Cambodia,” Summer 2009, 39.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Linton, Suzannah. Reconciliation in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of
Cambodia, 2004, 77.

[xi] Chea, Vannath, “Reconciliation in Cambodia,” Extracted from Reconciliation after Violent Conflict, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2003.