A few weeks ago I spoke with a senior transitional justice researcher and aspiring politician from northern Uganda about the trials (if you excuse the pun) and tribulations of achieving peace and justice in the region. He described sentiments familiar to those who have engaged in the “peace versus justice” debate:
“I don’t see it as a debate. It is common sense that in situations of what we have been experiencing, strategically we should be sequencing these issues, prioritizing and looking at what is best in the short-term and what is best in the long-term. It is very legitimate in any process that we must create an enabling environment that can guarantee justice can be done…If you start asking for justice even before you create that enabling environment, it is not even a debate, it is foolery…We must sequence them.”
I subsequently challenged him on the effectiveness of his argument to which he responded that Argentina was the ideal example of a state which had successfully sequenced peace and justice.
The “sequencing argument” has become a popular feature in the rigid and harshly dichotomous “peace versus justice” debate. The argument is attractive because it represents an attempt to find ground between the polarizing views that there is “no peace without justice” and “there is no justice without peace.” While the sequencing argument is closer to the latter in suggesting that justice may have to follow peace it largely acknowledges that justice is necessary in the long term. Unlike scholars of a realist bent who are sceptical of any attempt to achieve justice in conflict and post-conflict contexts, the point is not to reject accountability and reconciliation but to create an environment in which pursuing justice enforces rather than destabilizes peace.
The sequencing argument is rather nuanced and intuitive. It weaves together the two major strands of thinking on peace: positive peace and negative peace. Negative peace, the cessation of large-scale, direct violence, is required before justice can be pursued. If justice is sought prior to the “silencing of the guns”, then it risks prolonging the conflict. However, once a negative peace is secured, justice should be pursued. Only by identifying and rectifying past wrongs – including human rights abuses – can a more encompassing, positive peace be achieved. In short, the sequencing argument suggests a trajectory of:
violent conflict –> negative peace –> justice and accountability –> positive peace
Proponents of the sequencing argument have, however, not thoroughly scrutinized how their theory translates into practice. On the ground, the sequencing argument presumably looks a little like this: in order to achieve a cessation of violence, parties enter inclusive peace negotiations to achieve a power-sharing agreement and peaceful transition. The parties discontinue active conflict while even the most brutal and unsavoury of leaders are guaranteed amnesties as an incentive to cease violent activity. Once stability is assured and the time for accountability is ripe, those amnesties are revoked and the leaders of the conflict are brought to account, ushering in positive peace and justice.