The project on post-colonial legacies in transitional justice has its roots in long conversations and a prior publication by Professors Rolston and Ní Aoláin, who observed that in the vast literature on Transitional Justice, the issue of colonialism, with its different legacies and possible effects on both armed conflict and peace processes, has scarcely been touched upon. Likewise, practices of Transitional Justice seem to overlook the long-term impact of colonialism and concentrate on recent atrocities and contemporary challenge of governance and reform. The issue, however, is important given that violent conflict is highly prevalent in States with colonial pasts and a historical perspective is necessary to identify and overcome entrenched barriers to a durable and meaningful peace.
Consequently, in this project we aim to examine the ways in which colonial legacies continue to be present and shape contemporary society specifically in post-conflict settings. However, the purpose of our research is not simply to map a history of colonialism, decolonisation and post-colonialism, as many studies already do so. Rather, the research seeks to address gaps in reparation and remedy and ask a series of questions:
How can the harms of colonialism be redressed?
What reparations can be made for land expropriation centuries after it occurred?
Can prosecutions take place for long-ago genocide?
What role does memory and acknowledgement play in colonial redress?
In short, what – if any – role can transitional justice play in relation to harms that are ancient and yet embedded in the contemporary structure of certain societies?
Our approach: Colombia and Northern Ireland
In order to find answers to our questions we focus on two very different cases: Colombia and Northern Ireland.
We acknowledge that both countries had very different experiences of colonialism. What is now Colombia was conquered by the Spanish, whose colonial project was driven both by religious, Catholic fervor and an expropriative machine that sought to take prized minerals back to the metropole. Ireland, for its part, was subject to British imperialism, which in this case corresponded to strategic, geographical and agricultural interests. Likewise, the aftermath of colonialism in both cases has been noticeably different. For instance, the land question is to all intents and purposes appears solved in the Irish case, but not in the Colombian case. In the same way, the marginalisation of and discrimination against indigenous peoples and other ethnic groups is a continuing issue in Colombia in ways it is not in Ireland.
We equally acknowledge that the experience of armed conflict and Transitional Justice and both cases was, also, very different. Colombia’s armed conflict has pitched guerrilla groups with a largely communist ideology – including the FARC and ELN – against paramilitaries and government forces. “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland revolved around a struggle about the definition of the nation, and saw paramilitary groups, and State forces, embroiled in a conflict that may have reached the threshold of armed conflict under international law at certain points. While the conflict in Northern Ireland came to an end, largely, with the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the Colombian government signed a historic accord with the FARC in 2016, after several attempts at peace processes, although its implementation and future remains uncertain.
So, why study two such different cases? The answer is simple: if the question of the relationship between transitional justice and colonialism can produce answers in these two very different societies, then it may have some contribution to make on a wide range of post-colonial situations. That is the value of the comparative method that we are employing in this study.
Our Contribution to the Hub
One of the main aims of the Gender, Justice, and Security Hub, to which we belong, is to contribute to the successful delivery of development goals internationally, while taking into account that conflict and gender-based violence have devastating, long-term consequences on individuals, families and communities. We hope that this study will contribute to our understanding of the long-term issues related to conflict and transitional justice that have, thus far, been largely overlooked by both academics and practitioners. In that sense, we strive to create new knowledge and advocacy networks in order to motivate change both in the academic world and in practice. We shall provide regular updates as the research progresses and hope that you can accompany us on our journey.