1.6 Session on “Perils and Promises: Tensions between Justice and Other-Norms”

Pamela Couture, James Christie, Lowell Ewert

This panel will address the tensions that sometimes occur between ideals of justice and other social norms, such as memory and tradition, cultural expression, global security, and peace between religious and cultural communities. Are there instances when honouring particular cultural heritages should mitigate concerns for universal human rights? What roles should civil society play in addressing questions of rights, as compared to strong emphases on government obligations? What is the significance of social memory in public concerns about justice? Should there be limits to religious and cultural diversity in order to promote a common good?

What happens when ideals of justice are applied in specific contexts and made to confront other important and deeply rooted operative social norms like tradition, memory, and embedded cultural practices? This was the broad question that the workshop panel of Lowell Ewert, Pamela Couture and James Christie addressed, with reference to their own experiences in several conflict zones around the world, and especially Africa. Speaking out of his training as a lawyer, Ewert pointed to the inherent tension over legality within the conception of human rights. Despite the fact that the universal declaration of human rights seems only to offer abstract language that isn’t backed by legal obligations and is flagrantly subverted in many parts of the world, he said these “mere words” have remarkably caused a gradual shift in vision and imagination about what is fundamentally due any human person. He described three marked effects of this transformation, as evidenced in the growing expectations of accountability in recent decades, the greater voice and impact of civil society in general, and the now commonplace attention to how business interests affect human rights. He also pointed to the abiding tensions between the structural pillars of human rights discourse (governments, civil society, and business), and the intangible core of the discourse that resists reduction into legal, political, and administrative frameworks.

Couture extended this tension by speaking out of her research in and around the militia-ravaged city of Kamina in the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of the Congo. Highlighting the pivotal role that religious communities played alongside the government administration in bringing the brutal Mayi Mayi militia to the negotiating table, she related concrete examples of how the ground realities of a post-war nation can often challenge the notion that peace and justice can be achieved without compromising either. She described how, from a human rights perspective, scholarly, political and journalistic analyses of the Congolese crisis often seem to miss something important because they either ignore or fail properly to understand the religious logic of its primary protagonists and their milieu. This failure to grasp and distinguish the true sources of legitimating authority and brute power in a conflicted community often keep human rights discourse from tapping the true channels of transformative potential, she claimed. Citing the tension between the human rights and justice ideals and the frequently costly call to self-sacrifice for the sake of peace in places like Kamina (which can be understood only within a religious logic), she nevertheless reaffirmed the interrelatedness and integrality, as well as mutual non-substitutability, of human rights, justice, and religious language in any attempt at long-term success at peace and a restoration of right relations.  

James Christie’s work along the sidelines of the International Criminal Court allowed him to share complementary points on the need to surpass purely juridical or theoretical frameworks and to trade either/or strategies for both/and ones in the fight for global human rights and justice. He emphasized the need to develop structural measures as well as to make room for the religious “intangibles” of prayer, kindness, and peace, where justice imperatives often threaten to perpetuate further cycles of violence. Underscoring the role of civil society in bringing lasting change, he reiterated that, contrary to popular belief, the ICC was not primarily mobilized by concerned governments, but rather through tireless advocacy and pressure from civil society member organizations. The panel then contributed to questions over the role of gender in peace-building practices in conflict areas, and the difficulty of implementing human rights in places with a communal ethos that resist or are alienated by the Western intonations of rights language.

The four videos below represent the individual panelist's addresses and the question-and-answer session that followed.

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