What is Peace without Justice?

Kirthi Jayakumar

Herero Dolls

Image by GregMontani / PixaBay (Used under a CC0 Public Domain)

Peace, without Justice, is no peace at all. Imagine that you are in a country where war has just ended. The leader of your nation before and during war was the one who orchestrated mass atrocities, and in the course of the war, has continued to follow brutal policies of repression. To end the war, foreign powers tell the leader that he will be given amnesty if he leaves the nation – and he does. No tribunal is set up to inquire into the crimes that took place. People are afraid that speaking up and speaking out against any of the supporters of the leader who continue to remain in the country, might earn them reprisals. A point in time comes when the simmering tensions slowly burgeon into a state of low intensity conflict, and then become a massive conflagration. The nation slips right back into war.

This is the essence of a state of Peace that is doctored without one of its core ingredients: Justice. Peace without Justice is both unsustainable and fragile, and will only culminate in the complete denigration of the fabric of any social set up. Justice offers not only a sense of closure, but also keeps a certain level of significance in place for the Rule of Law, thereby creating a space where peace is automatically fostered into existence. In any social setting, in the aftermath of war, this is essential. Principles of Transitional Justice then come into play, where a post-conflict society finds ways to rebuild itself.

In a recent move, Namibia has called on the government of Germany to accept historical responsibility for the genocide it was responsible for, against the people of the Herero and Nama communities, over a century ago. In January 1904, the inhabitants of the then German Colony, Namibia, rose up against German Rule in the hope of overthrowing them. The Germans responded mercilessly, and followed a policy of extermination of the Herero and Nama communities. When the Herero fled into the desert towards Botswana, the German authorities sealed off the border, and as a result, while thousands died of thirst and starvation, the remaining were sent into concentration camps. By 1909, 65,000 people were killed – and that number constituted an estimate of 80 percent of the Herero people and 50 percent of the Nama. In 2011, the skulls of 20 of the victims of the genocide were handed over to a Namibian Delegation after being stored for decades in the Berlin Medical Historical Museum. In 2001, the Herero People’s Reparations Corporation filed a civil lawsuit before a court in the US, seeking recompense to the tune of $2bn from the German government and some corporations. The case was unsuccessful, but there was awareness to the issue. In 2004, on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the Herero uprising, Germany’s Development Aid Minister expressed regret for the genocide, but at the same time, dismissed calls for financial compensation.

A crime like Genocide has no law of limitation, or statute of limitations.[1] To this end, therefore, seeking justice in the form of compensation or financial recompense is not automatically barred. The pursuit of justice is not unfounded. Acceptance of history and seeking justice for a historic crime is one of the foremost values for the future. Unless a past is addressed, healed and attended to in a wholesome manner, no future can be stable. In every rendition of history, the truth must be accounted for in entirety. History that is written by a victors’ hand could shape a future that is built on falsehood, and a future built on a falsehood will keep a circle of conflict alive. In acknowledging a truth, necessary effort must be made to account for the truth, to act on the truth, and to engage in closure. What Germany will choose to offer Namibia as a response remains to be seen – but if a precedent must be set for the world, that peace cannot sustain without justice, this is the opportunity.

[1] A law of limitation allows room for a case to be prosecuted within a limited period of time. Failing to prosecute within the said time will amount to the right to prosecute expiring.

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