Rebuilding the Vanquished: Memorialisation as meaningful Restorative Justice

August 7, 2015

Dr. Christopher Mitchell, a renowned historian and voice of influence in the scholarship on reconciliation, in our session on reconciliation warned us that no one says that this is going to be easy. He soberly and impactfully regaled us with long and painful tales of unimaginable horror, before prompting us to think about substantial efforts to reconcile. This led us down many dark corridors in theories on how to rebuild societies and polities in the wake of intense violence and hatred. For two days straight the participants of the Summer Peacebuilding Program wrestled with various notions of reconciliation, and the meanings within the term.

Dr. Mitchell’s sessions provokes deep thought and emotive debate. This is not only owing to his teaching style or our various interdisciplinary backgrounds, but because reconciliation is a loaded term. Reconciliation takes almost countless forms, and meaningful reconciliation is something that is highly subjective; highly dependent upon the situation and the affected population. Indeed, volumes of journals and books could be produced on the issue of how best to reconcile and under what conditions, but in an attempt to provide meaningful analysis, this post will only confront one issue with reconciliation: the issue of restoration for those who have lost what they cannot regain.

Dr. Mitchell pointed out to us that in any reconciliation effort, restorative justice included, victims certainly need to be cared for, but that perpetrators of violence need to be accounted for. I reckon that with our human instincts and justice-oriented viewpoints in mind, few of us would disagree. Indeed, restoration doesn’t always have to be taxing for perpetrators and authorities to acknowledge. Properties can be restored, artwork can be restored, and so on. But when the physically intangible is vanquished, how can restoration be meaningful? That is, when human existence is damaged, impaired or lost altogether, what can be done to restore it? To but it crudely, landmine victims cannot grow their original limbs back, rape victims can’t be unraped, and victims of bloody massacres cannot be resurrected, and trauma cannot be forgotten. Yet while peacebuilders and apologetic perpetrators alike cannot replace the irreplaceable, there is room to repair damage and heal wounds.

Financial compensation has been said to be insulting, and apologies can be seen as insincere, but there is much to be said within the field of restorative justice for memorialisation, and it certainly goes a long way. Whether it takes the form of physical memorials, days of remembrance, bursaries and scholarships or honours for victims, there are many purported benefits of the memorialisation approach. The establishment of any form of memorialisation can be comforting to victims in that they can be reassured that their plight will not be forgotten and some fear that violence may recur can be quelled, for memorialisation often represents lessons learned from violence. It is also an important form of acknowledgement by figures of authority that wrongs were committed and can be more tangible than a verbal apology. It also permits a physical space to grieve, and promotes an idea of collective memory and collective mourning, not only for lives lost, but for the suffering caused by violence.

Memorialisation is a deeply humane effort at restorative justice, but it is effective memorialisation too often faces obstacles, namely from perpetrators of violence. When there is insufficient acknowledgement of past wrongs, memory becomes not collective but contested, and memorialisation becomes not unifying but political. A good example of this is the Serbian government’s continuing refusal to recognise the genocide of Bosniak Muslims at Srebrenica, and the impact that has had on what are intended to be peaceful memorial ceremonies, but as recently as this year, have been interrupted by disturbances. The memorialisation of the Srebrenica genocide is a good example of how when memorialisation becomes politicised, conflicted parties do not become reconciled meaningfully, as those who establish such memorials would intend, but rather conflict itself becomes encouraged, and the goalposts tighten in the pursuit for peace.

This explains why there should be a role for the perpetrators of violence in the memorialisation process. This is in the interest of the perpetrator if the perpetrator has retained a position of power either domestically or internationally, (as is the case with the Serbian government, to employ the Srebrenica example once more), for when a perpetrator does not acknowledge a wrongdoing of any nature for which it is widely deemed responsible, it damages its own legitimacy.

Much more can be said about the establishment of meaningful restorative justice through memorialisation, but I argue that prior to, or perhaps coupled with restorative justice must come independent truth commissions. This is because memorials are deeply meaningful to their victims, and that meaning may be compromised if the horrors that brought about the need to remember are not brought to light. Hence, the truth is needed, and it needs to be presented to the public in a way that is not only thorough, but irrefutable. What we have learned from Dr. Mitchell is that truth commissions need to satisfy victims and expose perpetrators, in a dignified manner, but that when a harsh light is shed upon the truth, it exposes more for us to remember, and enhances the credibility of memorials, and firmly establishes an objective and virtuous collective memory, offering more tools for a meaningful restorative justice. After all, reconciliation cannot be built on mysteries and falsehood.


Finding resilience in recovery: toward a ‘post-traumatic politics’?

August 4, 2015

I was particularly struck by Dr. Susan Hirsch’s session on trauma in the peace building context, and it has reignited a burgeoning interest I have developed in trauma in the political context. Trauma is a universal and often life-changing experience. Many events or phenomena can be traumatising, often in different ways, and often to varying degrees. I would say that trauma has touched all of us, and if it hasn’t yet, it likely will. The prevalence of trauma in our lives, particularly in the lives of those who live in conflict zones – at home, regionally, or indeed internationally – is overwhelming, most notably because trauma can be experienced in countless different ways, at times of war and times of peace. This can lead a potential peacebuilder to the conclusion that trauma healing is a daunting task, perhaps a task so frustrating that it may be futile. However, while trauma healing and the work of transitional justice advocates in general is taxing, there is much to be said not in favour of trauma, but the resilience that individuals and societies can gain in the process of recovery.

To say that the aftereffects of trauma, including the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are devastating is a radical understatement. Much like violent conflict itself, trauma needs to find its resolution somehow if a healthy, fruitful continuation of life is to be realised. It is in this principle, I believe that trauma and peacebuilding find not only a fundamental nexus, but fundamental similarities. The work of Judith Herman, and her classic work concerning the analysis of trauma Trauma and Recovery, can be employed to offer insights into how we must encourage the same empathy and sensibility for victims of trauma as we must for societies emerging from violence of any kind. Herman’s analysis offers that there are three stages to recovery from trauma that I think are fundamental for any individual, or notably, any society to bear in mind when laying the foundations for peacebuilding and recovery from any violence – structural or visible. Hence, I employ a wider interpretation of Herman’s work that I sincerely hope can be applied, of course to individuals, but also to wider communities as they search for recovery from traumatic events of all scales and of all styles.

First, establishing a sense of safety and stability. This could concern counselling and psychotherapy, but could also include efforts at resettlement, establishing aid flows, or bringing physical security to a region – essentially whatever it takes to make an individual, a community or a state, feel as though the source of their trauma is at its least likely to re-emerge. Second, working actively against the trauma. This includes tackling the irrationality of triggers – perhaps overcoming a fear of gunshots for alarms for the individual, but for the society it may entail the lustration and eradication of a genocidal political system, the writing of a new constitution, or a 20-year poverty eradication plan. Third, the move toward recovery, and a post-traumatic life, or a post-traumatic society.

I use this hastily written manipulation of Herman’s work with a motive in mind. I wish to make trauma as an individual and societal phenomenon more broadly visible, so that we can move towards a healthy form of post-traumatic society. I strongly believe that intrinsic to the realisation of a healthy post-traumatic society is the development of a post-traumatic politics. Herman, in Trauma and Recovery makes a very interesting case that people who walk away from trauma treatment often do so with a new, broadened view of society. Survivors of trauma may no longer be traumatised, but they are more sensitive than anyone to the plight of those enduring trauma. Governments and other political agents must be careful to do the same. Political actors must be secure and reasoned enough in their approach to peacebuilding to move to recovery, siege mentality, insensitivity to the plight of vulnerable peoples, violent genocidal nationalism, and so on. Some may consider this macro-level, politicised analysis of trauma, a deeply personal individual condition, to be a rather broad stroke to paint, but we must remember that a human analysis of structural and systemic issues often does not go amiss. After all, as we as a course are reminded all too often: structures are not made by bricks, they are made by people.

Big Organic and the Bigger Picture: Innovative farming and the fight for food justice

August 1, 2015

It is becoming more and more widely acknowledged that one of the major trends of structural violence occurring in the United States (and indeed nations across the globe) is food injustice. Food injustice refers to not only the environmentally sound production of food, but also the problem also known as hunger, food insecurity, food deprivation, and a plethora of different things, according to your field and understanding of this issue. Both a symptom and a residual effect of poverty, and a topic I’ve been fortunate to study extensively, food injustice is something I’ve come to see as an extraordinarily sensitive topic. No one with a fridge full of food finds it easy to confront the privilege of their food security, and it is tremendously degrading to find oneself unable to feed one’s children. As peacebuilding scholars, we don’t need a blog post written by a peer to determine that situations of desperation and the degradation of our fellow humans, can bring us to physical violence rather easily. And with crime rates being highest in marginalised (and food insecure) communities, we see that this is already occurring.

There are many approaches to mitigating the effects of food security, and to promoting food justice. Yet when the Summer Peacebuilding Program visited Earthbound Farms yesterday, I found it very hard to connect the dots between what founder Myra Goodman calls ‘Big Organic’, and the reduction of this particular form of structural violence. I offer my praise for the innovation of Myra and her team at Earthbound in promoting the healthy production of food, and the protection of the environment, by using farming practices that promote land conservation in ways that even conventional organic farmers do not. I also promote the ideology of ‘Big Organic’, provided it preserves its environmental and ideological integrity.

However, as someone who remains conscious of the food insecure, I do perceive Big Organic to be, at times, myopic in its promotion of a ‘food revolution’. This is by no means to say that the food justice movement and the Big Organic movement have to be mutually exclusive: in fact, I would posit that the opposite is true. Yet I must say that as someone who has spent three years working with and studying America’s poorest communities – the homeless, the welfare-dependent, the indigent – I have found that the movement to ‘buy organic’, to ‘eat fresh fruits and vegetables’ and to ‘reduce your carbon footprint’ through ‘making the right choices for you and your family’ takes completely the wrong approach to the promotion of a just food system. That is, it assumes that escaping food security, and tackling the effects of this violence, is an independent choice; that the imperative case is appropriate language. The concern with this notion of food justice is that it fosters the idea among the general public that the indigent are to be held responsible for their own injustices. This is not an escape from structural violence, this is a perpetuation of it.

I make no assumption that our friends at Earthbound Farms are party to the perpetuation of this injustice against marginalised communities – to draw such a conclusion from this piece would be simplistic at best. What I do suggest is that companies such as Earthbound Farms, and ultimately any proponent of any peace, have an ethical and moral obligation to promote access to places such as Earthbound Farms and the nourishment they offer, because sadly, bags of mixed baby greens only go so far when at least 1 in 6 Americans – the estimated statistic to illustrate food insecurity in this country – cannot afford to buy them. As with most things we’ve learned in our first week in the Summer Peacebuilding Program, the solution is political. We need to first destigmatize food insecurity, then to disincentivise (through policies, of course) the production of unhealthy cash crops by corporate food producers, then to promote food justice in a meaningful way, by promoting and supporting agents for equitable change in the food system. This change needs to target the urban and rural poor, through transport to access healthy food, the establishment of affordable produce vendors in poor communities, Community-Supported Agriculture programs, enhanced subsidies for food purchasing, and raising the minimum wage, to name but a few.

The list of tasks to promote food justice is long, but food justice advocates should not be intimidated by it, for it illustrates to us that there are many possibilities for activism for a fairer food system. This also means that there are possibilities for Big Organic. Organic producers who are bigger would tend to be more financially stable, and would have bigger profit margins, have more to provide for poorer communities – they have more to give, and like us as peacebuilders, they should give whatever time and resources they can. Yet we need to remember what food injustice is: a question of resource distribution, and Big Organic won’t contribute to the problem unless it actively becomes an agent for redistribution.

Neoliberal solutions for neoliberal problems: patching the leaks in the water industry

July 29, 2015

Dr. Jeff Langholz has a grand idea about revolutionising the water industry in a time of crisis. His solution to water disputes was born here in Monterey, and is taking the form of WaterCity, a for-profit social adventure which, even in its infancy, has promising solutions to the issue of water scarcity, namely here in California, but with global potential. WaterCity mirrors its solar energy market ally, Solar City, in that it offers no-strings-attached, free, sustainable structures that guarantee to relieve the pressure for water in households and businesses alike. It aims to do this not through an exclusively conservation-focused approach, or though the redistribution of water. In what could be deemed as classic liberal phraseology, Dr. Langholz insists that WaterCity will not focus on dividing the water available to us, but rather “enlarging the pie”, by quite literally pulling water out of the air, through rainwater harvesting, water recycling and atmospheric water generation, making scarcity a thing of the past, and acting to mitigate conflict.  WaterCity offers stress-free and cost-free installation, maintenance, repair and replacements, all while promising to reduce the cost of water by phenomenal proportions.

What I as a student found most impressive and most ambitious concerning the WaterCity schema, is not the obvious environmental and direct conflict-mitigating effects of this project, but the scale of the water systems it proposes, and the repercussions it could have for the state, the corporate water sector and even the state itself. Herein lies the principles of the forthcoming water revolution. Dr. Langholz promises that the future of water lies in its decentralization. This implies that both paradigms concerning the water provision industry and the scale of water production are in dire need of reform. Concerning the issue of scale, Dr. Langholz points out the pollution and environmental destruction caused by dams and large-scale reservoirs that make today’s paradigm for water production fundamentally unsustainable in ecological terms. Turning to economic terms, Dr. Langholz illustrates what is well-known and almost universally relatable across the United States: the frustration with the remarkably high cost of water. Single households, businesses, or cross-community sustainable water systems, as proposed by WaterCity, will actively work against the corporatization and monopolization of the water industry that spur these oft-unaffordable water bills.

If it sounds too good to be true, it’s likely not, but there are certainly risks and caveats that one should be aware of when analyzing WaterCity. To understand these caveats, I will phrase the water crisis, at least in California, as a fundamentally neoliberal problem. I use this phraseology not out of spite for neoclassical liberalism in general, but based upon the support that deregulatory non-interventionist and pro-private enterprise ideology, particularly since the Reagan years have brought about the commoditisation of water. Water is no longer a right, it is to be paid for by the individual, who has agency for his own well-being, and is expected to work for water. It has also been gifted to the hard-working entrepreneur, who found himself wealthy enough to be the head of California Amercian Water, or rather the hegemon of California’s entire water supply, with a hand on the faucet, threatening to cut the flow of those who don’t work for water. Yet WaterCity is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a statist solution.The primary difference between Langholz’s project and the present water distribution regime is not that California American Water and WaterCity find themselves on opposite sides of the same ideological coin. In fact it’s just as neoliberal a solution as the problem of commoditized water itself. The divergence WaterCity wishes to see from the status quo is not only that water supply should be decentralized, but that the industry needs to be demonopolized. This means that in order to drive down costs and profits to truly de-commoditize water, and enshrine it once again as a public good, privatized water production act as competitive, benevolent agent, with numerous players in the industry. Related to this point it is clear that Langholz has great faith that WaterCity is not merely a flash in the pan, but that from WaterCity will emerge companies who “can’t hurt you the way governments do.” While the privatization of a public good may seem to be an oxymoronic term, this model seeks to delegitimize the state in a way that not only lifts the hearts of orthodox neoliberals, but promises a fair deal to consumers and environmentalists alike.

Yet inherent in the re-liberalization of water is the fact that companies such as WaterCity remain dependent upon success, as a firm, but also as an ideology. Enough companies similar to WaterCity need to form for the magic of capitalist competition to actually lower the costs for water substantially. I close with a series of questions I ask my fellow participants to reflect upon and discuss, for I wrestle with them too much to analyse them coherently. Could a failure of the project to get off the ground render it a mere write-off on the balance sheet of one of its venture capitalist investors? What safeguards should be implemented to ensure that WaterCity remains as sustainability focused ? Could government intervention and regulation cruelly halt its momentum, or even tarnish its price or profit margins? Can or should the government resist the urge to meddle with WaterCity, and maintain the statist-liberal divide in the provision of natural resources? We mustn’t dismiss questions as broad as these, for an essential resource is at stake. To gamble upon a small-scale venture as the future of the water industry is a risk that could jeopardise the peace as much as it could preserve it. That is to say, we must consider whether playing with water is, in turn, playing with fire.