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Transitional justice can create a just, fair and shared future for all

Unless systematic and sustained efforts are expended toward addressing hurts, structural inequalities and violent past human rights abuses in the U.S., dismantling or defunding the police alone will not work.

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Piecemeal approaches like defunding/demilitarizing, dismantling or divesting from the police will not completely remedy issues of magnitude like systemic racism. These types of changes require processes to be in place that shape good outcomes. Transitional justice has a track record for this type of change through truth-telling, investigating through statement taking, repairing harm or memorializing victims – after which requires initiating important conversations that empower survivors and enlisting community members to get involved and recommend what reforms are needed, and why.

America can do this.

Transitional justice is a process utilized in many countries around the world. It offers a systematic range of approaches available to societies attempting to deal with difficult, painful pasts. Many countries have used transitional justice to address their own ugly legacies and to build fair and just futures – deciding together, as a society, how to move forward.

The U.S. helps other countries do this

The U.S. government, through its State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID), spends billions of dollars annually to help other societies clean up their democratic credentials. It helps other societies deal with similar issues abroad, but is reluctant to employ the same at home. This must change.

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For example, in Chile after the brutal rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet, the new Chilean president, Patricio Aylwin, established a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Chile had to dig deep. The Chilean people could not afford a cosmetic reform of the police, which had enforced disappearances of political enemies of the past regime. The United States cannot afford to continue to make the same mistakes of cosmetic reform. Timing is everything.

Similarly, in South Africa, President Nelson Mandela knew he could not keep the same police force. The South African police had enforced the apartheid regime’s racially biased policies, tortured and murdered so-called African National Congress (ANC) dissidents – Black South Africans who were designated for targeting. Fellow citizens. South Africa could not merely defund, divest from, demilitarize or dismantle the police. The police were only agents of a long-held racially biased and polarized society. For reform, South Africa had to go back in history and look at the root causes of racial chasms mired in inequalities. As painful and as polarizing as it was, it was essential to move the country forward.

The United States supported South Africa’s national renewal. We should do the same for ourselves. I have heard the refrain in recent days that this process is not familiar to the United States. I disagree.

Four pillars of transitional justice

Transitional justice is a widely known process utilized in many countries around the world. Transitional justice measures are anchored in the four pillars of accountability, truth-telling, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition of wrongdoings. More than 40 countries have used transitional justice mechanisms in one form or another.

Ahmed Sirleaf
Ahmed Sirleaf
Notably, community-sanctioned truth commissions have been formed in the United States. In Greensboro, North Carolina, a commission addressed Klan and police brutalities. In Maine, the Wabanaki and other local community members established their own truth telling and healing process, and in Detroit, the Metro Detroit Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion established a truth and reconciliation commission to address racially biased housing disparities in the region. Having participated in the work of some of these commissions, I can attest to the catalyzing effect of a transitional justice process for holistic reform and healing.

Following a mega-transitional-justice implementation, the ensuing work can be crystallized in micro-community initiatives. Restorative practices help address lingering harms. This type of work is being carried out daily in small measures by community mediation programs around the country. For example, at my home-based, Community Mediation and Restorative Services, Inc. (CMRS, Inc.) in New Hope, we work to address housing, school and health disparities in myriad forms.

The work at CMRS proves that it can be done when the right infrastructure is put into place.

The past must be unearthed and confronted

To tear down the various forms of abuse, structural inequalities, neglect and endemic racism, the past must be unearthed and confronted – however painful. The past must be raised to the consciousness of the nation, and communities must commit to the day-to-day work this requires.

The United States must acknowledge its legacy of genocide, slavery, systemic de jure exclusions, injustice, human rights abuse and persistent systemic racism.

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From genocide against original inhabitants of this land to antebellum 18th century race-based massacres, from mob violence to riots, desegregation violence to 21st-century police killings and systemic racism, the United States ought to comprehensively confront its difficult past in order to make progress.

Understanding history helps the healing process. Now it is the time to seize the moment. Post George Floyd is an inflection point for this nation. There is no turning back.

Understanding history means knowing who the victims are, who is (or was) responsible, and who should be held accountable for historic or ongoing wrongdoings. The U.S. spends billions (some estimates put it at anywhere from $8 to $10 billion) of dollars annually on strengthening accountability and democratic institutions abroad. Why not at home, too?

Following the George Floyd killing in the horrific and inhumane manner we saw, public outcry reverberated across the nation and the world. This type of killing is not new. What is new is the level of disenchantment with the status quo. This time around a coalition for justice is formed forever – white, black, brown, yellow, all united in one accord. They want peace. They want justice. They want a process that will unite the country and establish equal justice for all, moving forward. A piecemeal approach cannot meet this demand. What is needed is a full-range framework that spans across a broken system.

For sustainable reform, some recommendations

Activists, civil rights leaders, local officials and national political leaders must take bold steps towards addressing the United States’ past. It will be a missed opportunity for every police department or city council to simply engage in a piecemeal approach to think policing is the only problem. That would be a cosmetic dressing of the symptoms, and does not address the problem itself. Local police reform alone, or a presidential executive order on policing, will not work for the long haul, or result in just and equitable reform.

For sustainable reform to happen, I recommend the following:

1) Establish a Federal Truth and Racial Justice/Fairness Commission to systemically investigate how slavery happened in the United States, its enduring impacts on families and communities of color. Such a commission could have a temporal or subject matter mandate.

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2) Resulting from the work of the truth commission, establish a reparations fund for economic and social justice – issuing compensations to individual descendants, communities and for collective community development initiatives.

3) Institute a massive criminal justice reform (including but not limited to police and prison reforms) by increasing transparency and accountability – disqualifying abusive individuals along the way.

4) Establish memorials honoring memories of victims of massacres and memorials at race violence sites, and address legacies relating to monuments and memorials that trigger racial hurts.

Systemic, sustained efforts required

Transitional justice can provide both accountability and healing.

Unless systematic and sustained efforts are expended toward addressing hurts, structural inequalities and violent past human rights abuses in the U.S., dismantling or defunding the police alone will not work. Addressing the dilemma of needing public safety and deforming the police is a false equivalency – again, this is only addressing the symptoms. It will not work. Looking back at history for a direction to the future.

Ahmed Sirleaf is a Ph.D. student in Comparative International Development Education at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. A human rights and international justice advocate, Sirleaf is an independent international development consultant who works for Community Mediation and Restorative Services, Inc. (CMRS), in New Hope.


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