Truth and Reconciliation: Transitional Justice and Religion in a Globalized World

J Mark Dodds via Flickr

J Mark Dodds via Flickr

The interface between religious traditions and globalization is creating new tensions and unprecedented challenges. The more diverse the population, the more competing answers to the fundamental questions that religion address, and thus the more likely individual and group rights will come into points of contention with the competing rights of others. The burning question therefore becomes: how do we mediate conflict between religion and globalization, locally, nationally, and internationally, when it encroaches upon universally recognized human rights as provided for in the UDHR. This can include conflict between groups; between individuals within groups; between groups and the state; and elsewhere. When everything is global, how we manage the interface locally, by whom, and by what measure, becomes a challenge. One place in which this tension plays out on the international stage is in cases of transitional justice.

Transitional justice is a crucial response to systematic or widespread human rights violations.[1] There are two leading schools of thought. The liberal human rights paradigm emerges from the Western intellectual tradition, whereas the reconciliation or religious paradigm is a holistic approach seeking understanding and forgiveness from God.[2] Religious perspectives and the liberal human rights model of transitional justice form entirely different paradigms.[3] In fact, “The very religiosity of the religious worries contemporary liberal political philosophers, who fear that religious language, undermines respect and stability in liberal democracy.”[4] However, how these paradigms can and should be reconciled and by what methods, is the challenge. Diverse methodologies are required to find solutions to a wide range of injustices, and each case may call for different techniques.

For example, a variety of techniques were employed in South Africa following apartheid. Particularly, local religious and cultural practices were utilized. The process concentrated on reconciliation and restorative justice, rather than retributive justice. Zehr labels restorative justice as involving healing and empowering the community and encouraging collaboration and reintegration.[5] South Africa rejected the formal and legalistic punitive approach of the Nuremberg trials on the one hand, or blanket amnesty, on the other hand, by granting amnesty in exchange for confessional truth.[6]

Culturally unifying elements were drawn upon to frame this process, such as storytelling and Ubuntu. Storytelling is integral to African culture and tradition and by building in a procedure in which victims could tell their stories in a public forum, it sanctioned the “victims, perpetrators, and bystanders to construct a common memory of the past.”[7] Tutu explains Ubuntu, “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human.”[8] He describes that a person with Ubuntu understands that they are part of a greater whole in which others being tortured or oppressed diminishes that whole.[9] The public apologies and confessions by the perpetrators as a part of the TRC also resembled Christian themes of confession and repentance.[10] South Africa needed to confront the past in order to successfully move forward. A Christian confessional setting for doing so made the affected population comfortable as a process that was familiar to many therein cloaking it with legitimacy.[11]

A statue of Nelson Mandela in Drakenstein, SA (HelenSTB via Flickr)

A statue of Nelson Mandela in Drakenstein, SA (HelenSTB via Flickr)

Furthermore, Christian ritual was co-opted in the reconciliation process in the form of church-like services, the lighting of symbolic candles and even the singing of religious songs.[12] Shore describes that the fact that the TRC opened with a religious service in a Christian church set a precedent for Christian ritual throughout the life of the TRC.[13] Shore explains, “Whether intentional or not, this dimension of ritual worked to bring many South Africans together as a nation.”[14] This influence was both positively and negatively received globally.[15] Mandela appointed 17 commissioners to the TRC in December 1995, one third of which came from faith communities or religious leadership backgrounds.[16] In the end the process emphasized the pursuit of understanding rather than vengeance and retaliation. Perhaps the greatest contribution from the South African experience is that open dialogue can help mediate and reconcile rights abuses, an approach which could be applied elsewhere in situations of conflict or interface with multiple actors or authorities.

It is crucial to learn from experiences such as those experienced in South Africa or elsewhere such as in Rwanda to successfully deter and appropriately and effectively respond to widespread human rights violations, such as the inter-ethnic violence currently being experienced in South Sudan. Since typically transitional justice involves different groups from the conflict living side by side, reconciliation is crucial to minimize acts of revenge that could ultimately threaten the sustainability of the state. To achieve lasting peace the wrongs of the past must be faced head on, punished, and then the community must heal: both accountability and forgiveness are necessary. But accountability must be demonstrated and forgiveness must be tailored to respect local and religious cultural difference as processes are implemented. Therefore, not only can the restorative and retributive forms of justice be complementary; their dual pursuit is critical for effective transitional justice. We must adopt both maximalist and minimalist principles to advance the moral and legal imperative, prosecuting human rights violations, and advocating amnesties to acheive a peace and democratic transition that endures.[17]


[1] Mohamed Sesay, “Introduction to Transitional Justice,” McGill University. Montreal. 12 Sept. 2013. Lecture.

[2] Mohamed Sesay, “Religion and Transitional Justice,” McGill University. Montreal. 19

Sept. 2013. Lecture.

[3] Daniel Philpott, “What Religion Brings to the Politics of Transitional Justice,” in

Journal of International Affairs 60, no. 1. 2007, 96.

[4] Philpott 100.

[5] Howard Zehr, “Restorative Justice: The Concept,” in Corrections Today 59, no. 7. 1997, 69.

[6] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Image Doubleday, 2000) 30.

[7] Lyn S. Graybill, “South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Ethical and Theological Perspective,” in Ethics and International Affairs 12, no. 1. 1998, 49.

[8] Tutu 31.

[9] Tutu 31.

[10] Graybill 50.

[11] Mohamed Sesay, “The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” McGill University. Montreal. 3 Oct. 2013. Lecture.

[12] Megan Shore, Religion and Conflict Resolution: Christianity and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009) 74.

[13] Shore 65.

[14] Shore 74.

[15] Shore 69.

[16] Shore 61.

[17] Olsen 16.