Religion, peace and transitional justice

Soldiers from the Burundian contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia march on the Al Shabab-held town of Ragaele in Somalia’s Hiraan region on September 30. AMISOM photo. Original public domain image from Flickr

The drastic escalation of religious armed conflicts over the past decades has become one of the most persistent challenges to the global effort to achieve peace and justice. Examples of religious armed conflicts in recent years include the conflict with Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria. Another recent example is a major outbreak of violence between Jews and Muslims in May 2021, which began in the al-Aqsa Mosque neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Indeed, some previous studies show that religious conflicts can be deadly, difficult to resolve, and more likely to end up incurring repression. Yet a growing body of literature suggests that religion can play an ambivalent role: that it promotes violence but is also a force for peace, reconciliation and justice. Additionally, scholars argue that the concept of reconciliation has deep religious roots and that religion has played a central role in the development and spread of transitional justice practices. Transitional justice is defined by the UN Secretary-General as “the set of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, to serve justice and to achieve reconciliation”. The concept of TJ includes a variety of elements to address past injustices such as truth and reconciliation commissions and reparations programs. Our research focuses on the ambivalent role of religion and the link between religion and transitional justice mechanisms. Furthermore, it examines whether transitional justice can lead to a comprehensive peace agreement.

Our study employs quantitative analysis using the Transitional Justice in Peace Processes (TJPP) dataset, which contains innovative insights into global peace negotiations between 1989 and 2014. The TJPP dataset identifies six elements of transitional justice : truth commissions and reconciliation processes (symbolic aspect), refugee reparations and rehabilitation programs (material aspect), amnesties and release of prisoners (legal aspect). As for religious armed conflicts, we focus on two different definitions. The first definition refers to religious identity dissimilarity, which measures the difference in religious identity of rival groups who either belong to different religions or to different denominations within the same religion. The second definition refers to the presence of religious content, which relates to a primary religious goal or requirement, such as the requirement of a rigid religious policy or the maintenance of holy places.

The results demonstrate the following: (1) Peace processes in conflicts based on religious content are more likely to include elements of transitional justice. However, these peace processes are more likely to include material elements of transitional justice rather than symbolic or legal elements. (2) Peace processes for conflicts based on religious identity are more likely to also include elements of transitional justice. However, this connection is rather weak and inconsistent. Moreover, these peace processes are less likely to include token elements of transitional justice. (3) Despite the extensive use of transitional justice elements, religious peace processes of any kind are not significantly associated with the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement. One possible reason for this finding is that religious conflict peace processes lack relevant transitional justice elements crucial for success, such as a robust reconciliation process. This implies that the religion is indeed ambivalent – ​​it uses some elements of transitional justice – but lacks a strong reconciliation process as suggested in previous research. For example, previous attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict included material components of transitional justice such as the release of prisoners, but did not include symbolic components such as reconciliation.

These findings have important implications for theories linking religion and transitional justice. They can serve as a basis for additional future research to explore the complex link between religion, peace and justice. They also indicate that it is desirable that mediators and negotiators in future peace processes of religious conflicts consider placing more emphasis on the symbolic aspect of transitional justice.

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The study was published on April 22, 2022 in Peacebuilding and available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21647259.2022.2065791

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