Tools for change: Grassroots-based transitional justice
by Eilish Boschert for Shared Future News
7 November 2018
Led by Professor Emeritus of Ulster University, Dr Eilish Rooney, and Dr Azadeh Sobout, the Toolkit for Peacebuilding event fitted neatly into this year’s ESRC Festival of Social Science, by examining the ways in which communities impacted by violent conflict can engage in transitional justice locally.
While the event gathered attendees under the title “Toolkit for Peacebuilding”, Rooney confessed that it was misleading. There is a skepticism around ‘peacebuilding’ in local communities that anticipates hidden or forced agendas; however, this initiative is entirely voluntary and draws on the resources of the people who use it, making them the primary concern. The real toolkit, called “Transitional Justice Grassroots Toolkit”, avoids the language of peacebuilding because it aims to connect and engage with local communities.
The toolkit is divided into 8 parts:
- Dig Where You Stand
- The Five Pillars
- Institutional Reform
- Prosecution & Amnesty
- Map Making
Each of these tools touches issues of transitional justice from the personal to political, local to international. It utilises the experiences and personal knowledge to explore the causes of conflict and the ways in which justice can manifest in areas most affected by conflict.
Rooney explained that it was conversations about transitional justice among three communities of North Belfast that the toolkit began: New Lodge, Mount Vernon, and Tiger’s Bay. Her toolkit colleagues from Bridge of Hope were then introduced: Head of Victims and Mental Health Services, Irene Sherry, and Legacy Coordinator, Aine Magee. Rooney explained that these women were involved in the first conversations between community activists, former combatants, and self-identified freedom fighters. Discussing the importance of ownership in and leadership in transitional contexts, Sherry commented that the toolkit provides a “holistic approach to trauma recovery”.
The toolkit has not been well-funded; instead, its support comes in large measure from pro bono contributions. This, however, has worked in the toolkit’s favour: it is a community-led, community-based, person-centred initiative. The grassroots nature of this work means that it caters specifically to the needs of of the group, utilising their experience toward finding solutions, rather than forcing outside agendas.
Rooney asserted that it is one’s experience of conflict and transitional justice that is at the core of these conversations — the toolkit provides an accessible framework for people to organise and analyse the knowledge they already have. Areas of intense social and economic need suffer most from conflict. The impact here is obvious, but forgotten or invisible outside the community. The toolkit is a social justice conversation that allows communities to own the visibility.
Rooney’s colleague and former PhD advisee, Dr Azadeh Sobou, utilised toolkit practices in her research on Palestinian refugees in North Lebanon. Working with the people of Nahr al-Bared — a Palestinian camp destroyed by the Lebanese Army during a multi-month conflict in 2007 — Sobou examined the notion of “wounded space” in relation to law and justice. Sobou stated that the only people allowed to enter the camp after the conflict were the Lebanese Army, which reinforced their impunity. This raised questions of truth and narratives of justice, which focused very little on grassroots. Sobou aimed to use the toolkit to gather stories of experience from Palestinians of Nahr al-Bared — sharing their trauma, displacement, and the ways they struggle for justice in order to create a conversation that uncovers their invisible wounds.
The toolkit’s focus, first and foremost, is on local experience and knowledge. Its accessible format gives communities the tools they need to help themselves, creating ownership and leadership. By removing the onus of institutional requirements of peacebuilding, communities affected by conflict are more receptive to engagement and change. This grassroots initiative has the potential to transform neglected areas in the aftermath of violent conflict.