Ways of Knowing after Atrocity

Ways of Knowing after Atrocity

In May 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Nicola Palmer, a Senior Lecturer in criminal law at King’s College London, to discuss her work on the ESRC-funded “Ways of Knowing after Atrocity” project. This knowledge exchange project sought to examine the methods used to formulate, implement, and assess transitional justice processes.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background more broadly, and how you ended up working on this particular project?

Dr Nicola Palmer: My work initially explored how international law has interacted with domestic and localized responses to large scale violence, with a focus on Rwanda. I was interested in the interaction between the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Rwandan national courts, and the localized gacaca courts. I conducted interviews with the judges, lawyers, witnesses, and suspects who were part of these processes. From that, a book emerged, called Courts in Conflict, which argued that these different groups ascribed very different meanings to their work, illuminating divergent legal cultures that help explain the constraints on the courts’ effective cooperation and evidence gathering. So, international lawyers were focused on building the international legal order, the national courts were focused on developing national legal capacity, and local gacaca proceedings were interested in specific information about who had participated in the violence and where the bodies of victims could be found. These different ways of understanding these proceedings highlighted how the impact of these processes is shaped by the actors involved – and that is where the ways of knowing atrocity project emerged.

How did you go about conducting this research?

The project brought lawyers, civil society actors and academics into the same space to exchange knowledge and discuss the methods they use for formulating and designing responses to large scale violence and assessing the impact of those responses. We wanted to create a bridge towards having wider understandings of post-conflict processes, and we worked with civil society actors including swisspeace and civil society actors in Rwanda and Kosovo in order to accomplish this goal. Throughout the project, we ran an interdisciplinary seminar series between the University of Oxford and King’s College London, we had an online debate which brought together academics and legal practitioners to discuss the monitoring of human rights abuses and responses to that, and we organized a series of workshops in Rwanda and Kosovo. We drew on existing expertise from diverse fields including literature, law, politics, statistics, anthropology, history, and development studies; and explored case studies from Nepal, South Africa, Vietnam, Serbia, Bosnia, and Rwanda.

What emerged from this research?

One of the real strengths of this project was the possibility to co-develop knowledge, drawing on expertise from civil society and academia and learning from a wide geographical spread of knowledge – including from those in violence affected communities. Based on our findings, we developed a transitional justice methods manual, which seeks to make accessible the different methods that are currently being deployed to understand and respond to large scale violence.

Our work also made clear the importance of a relational approach to transitional justice and we published these findings in a Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Law and Society. Justice processes provide a means of categorizing abuses. In doing so, they set the parameters of what type of harm warrants a response and this categorisation is informed by methods and relationships. We need to understand the impact of those relationships if we are to understand the impact of this work. One example of this is the need to critically examine who is generating knowledge on post-conflict processes. In the case of Rwanda, a lot of the discussions were being framed by non-Rwandans, creating inequalities in the distribution of knowledge around responses to large-scale violence. The ways of knowing project prompted us to think about how to widen the set of actors involved in generating responses to transitional justice, and how to widen the set of initiatives that are being taken. We are now working on a follow-up project with Rwandan-UK civil society organization the Aegis Trust, supported by the British Academy to further involve Rwandan scholars in peace education, including through how their research can inform the peace and values education program in their high school curriculum.

What would you want policymakers to know about this work?

One of the takeaways for the policy community is the importance of having a wider set of voices around the table. Doing so changes the nature of the discussion. The project also highlighted the different meanings that communities can ascribe to justice processes, highlighting the need for policymakers to ensure that there are representatives from affected communities involved throughout the design, implementation, and assessment of institutionalized responses to violence – whether it is a truth commission, a criminal trial, a memorialization process, or an education program in schools.