It may seem odd that the National Security Strategy discusses accountability for mass atrocities on the same page as defeating transnational terror. What could justice have to do with fighting terrorists? More than you might think.
Despite the United States pouring billions of dollars into its erstwhile War on Terror, violent extremism continues to threaten American security interests. The U.S. needs a preventive approach, which tackles the problem before would-be militants take up arms, and reduces the need to fund kinetic operations down the road.
Transitional justice can disrupt processes that transform individuals and groups into violent extremists and deny terrorists the ability to reap propaganda victories from their tactics. Amplifying support for transitional justice can be the first step in adopting a more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that targets the disease instead of the symptoms.
After a period of intense violence, societies face a window of opportunity in which former grievances can and should be addressed. This might include holding trials, implementing a truth commission, offering amnesties, issuing reparations, and undergoing legal and institutional reforms – a collection of mechanisms under the umbrella of transitional justice. The U.S. has a vested interest in seeing post-conflict governments implement such programs.
Take Iraq’s de-Baathification debacle. The scheme to purge former officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime was an abject failure – instead of achieving justice, its discriminatory angle stoked sectarian in-fighting and contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. Injustice, or incomplete or poorly-implemented justice regimes, as in Iraq, can dangerously devolve into violent extremism.
A just society is less vulnerable to terror. Where terrorism seeks to divide societies by sowing fear and distrust, transitional justice aims to strengthen communities by restoring unity and faith in government. Some consensus has formed that human rights violations and state fragility are commonly exploited by terrorists. Transitional justice can close off some of the gaps in fragile states where violent extremism thrives.
Chief among these gaps, fragile states are often deeply divided. Studies have shown that social marginalization — which can be underscored by inter-group conflict — is a common driver of violent extremism. Transitional justice programs provide the means for reconciliation among rival factions and an avenue for peaceful conflict resolution to proceed. This might mean bringing victims and perpetrators face-to-face to engage in dialogue or crafting a new collective narrative that de-emphasizes communal divisions. Social integration can support de-radicalization processes and prevent past wrongs from compelling victims to pursue extremist violence.
Second, fragile states tend to lack legitimacy. Individuals or groups excluded from political participation or subjected to systemic discrimination are more likely to lose faith in their governments and rebel against them. By bringing past abuses to light and condemning them in the public space, transitional justice mechanisms provide nascent post-conflict states with a reputation for human rights protections and inclusive government. Previously persecuted individuals might then believe courts are more effective than car bombs at addressing grievances.
Success is possible. Although not without its critics, Rwanda’s post-genocide transitional justice process has become a model in the field. Today, the country experiences significantly lower rates of terrorism than its neighbors, which may be attributable in part to its efforts at achieving unity and reconciliation.
By addressing grievances that might drive individuals to join violent extremist groups, well-tailored transitional justice processes can help seal off pathways of radicalization that sustain terrorist groups and allow them to emerge where fragility appears. By fulfilling victims’ needs, resolving intercommunal conflicts, and reinforcing state legitimacy, transitional justice can actively undermine the ability of terrorist organizations to take advantage of fragile states.
To take this approach, the U.S. must invest more in its non-military tools. It could support grassroots peacebuilding organizations, contribute to global reparations funds, put diplomatic pressure on regimes resisting calls for justice, or send legal advisers to assist governments in designing and implementing transitional justice programs or criminal justice reforms.
The U.S. needs to support these initiatives on a wider scale. The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 only explicitly mentions transitional justice as an objective for Iraq and Syria. A preventive approach cannot overlook the Venezuelas and Nigerias of the world — fragile states where the time for justice is ripe, momentum exists on the ground, and intervention now could mitigate a foreseeable violent relapse.
As the U.S. reconciles its commitment to human rights with today’s security challenges, policymakers should recognize the harmony that exists between U.S. interests in countering terrorism and promoting transitional justice. It’s worth a try.