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Sharswood fellow Matiangai Sirleaf on the truth about truth commissions

April 19, 2013

From a serene office in Gittis Hall on the Penn Law campus, Matiangai Sirleaf is trying to move the conversation about transitional justice in strife-ridden countries beyond its traditional framework, which focuses on truth and punishment.

“Part of my research attempts to look beyond truth and punishment to respond to the needs of human rights victims and the affected society,” she says. “As legal scholars and human-rights practitioners, we tend to have an abundance of faith in the truth commissions and courts we set up to achieve a host of objectives after a conflict. But it may be that what’s necessary for societal transformation is actually much broader than these limited interventions.”

Sirleaf is a Sharswood Fellow at the Law School, a two-year appointment on the model of a post-doctoral fellowship intended to help launch academic careers. The program, begun in 2007, awards two fellowships a year, each of which funds two years of research, writing, and teaching.

 “The Sharswood program reflects the Law School’s commitment to fostering careers in legal academia,” said Prof. Tobias Wolff, who works with Sharswood Fellows as they prepare for the academic market. “At the same time, the fellows enrich the Penn Law community. They become full and active members of the intellectual life of the Law School during their time here.”

A graduate of Yale Law School, Sirleaf previously earned a master’s degree in International Affairs from the University of Ghana-Legon while on a Fulbright Fellowship. After graduating from law school  in 2008, she worked as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, as a fellow at the International Center for Transitional Justice in Cape Town, and as human rights fellow at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a Washington, D.C. law firm. She arrived at Penn Law last summer.

Born in the U.S., Sirleaf was raised in Liberia until the age of 10, when her family fled a civil war.  “That experience had a very profound impact on me, seeing at a young age the absence of the rule of law and the complete decimation of society,” she says.

As a consequence, as she grew older she became interested in human rights work. “I learned that there is this field called transitional justice, which focuses on dealing with how countries coming from a conflict, or coming from an authoritarian regime, try to respond to massive violence.”

Sirleaf’s current research explores the difference between how transitional justice mechanisms perform in post-authoritarian and post-conflict situations. In particular, she is investigating the efficacy and usefulness of truth commissions and courts in different contexts. She spoke with Penn Law recently about her work.

PL: What put you on an academic career path?

Sirleaf: I didn’t enter law school thinking that I was going to come out being an academic. But through the different experiences I’ve had, I’ve realized that at heart I am. Academia is the only space where you have the freedom to define your own research agenda and work on issues that interest you and which you are passionate about. It allows you the platform to impact scholarly and policy discussions in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to, if you were solely practicing. There’s not as much time for reflection when you’re practicing and generally the organizations you work with don’t support in-depth research, critical reflection and writing. You’re constantly putting out fires and dealing with the crises at hand, which of course needs to be done, but you’re so busy looking at the trees that you often don’t see the bigger picture. Thinking about these kinds of larger issues is what I’m passionate about.

PL: What is the focus of your current research?

Sirleaf: I conducted field research in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana interviewing over 100 victims of human rights violations, community, religious, and nongovernmental organizations that assist victim groups, as well as relevant actors from truth commissions, courts, governments, and U.N. agencies. I’m working on a piece that looks at why truth commissions, which by in large have been used in post-authoritarian contexts, might not function well in post-conflict situations.

PL: How do those two situations differ?

Sirleaf: In post-authoritarian contexts, such as Ghana, there are usually fewer alleged perpetrators and fewer victims. If there is a military regime, maybe there are a number of people who were involved in state-level repression against a select number of dissidents or dissidents’ families. That’s not the same context as a civil war in which there are massive numbers of people taking up arms against each other.

The nature and scale of the crimes also differs. Crimes committed under an authoritarian regime are usually done in secret. People are disappeared, people are detained, and people are tortured. It’s not something that occurs openly, as it does in a civil war where people are slaughtering each other with no pretense of making secret the atrocities that are occurring. Violations in that context are not necessarily state against individual, but also individual against individual and community against community.

PL: And truth commissions don’t work in that context?

Sirleaf: In the transitional justice field there hasn’t been much reflection on whether it is appropriate to apply this model, which has worked, or seemingly has worked, in post-authoritarian contexts in post-conflict situations and assume that they will achieve the same results. My main argument is that truth commissions won’t function very well in post-conflict contexts, as measured by the perceptions of the affected society and victims due to the relative size of the victim and perpetrator class, the degree of moral consensus and the relative strength of institutions.

There needs to be moral consensus about the nature of the violence that occurred for a truth commission to work properly. For instance, was it genocide or was it just a war? Are these people terrorists, or are they freedom fighters? There needs to be consensus among the community in which the truth commission is situated for whatever report or other actions that come out of the commission’s work to have any kind of impact. Part of the problem is that these bodies are transplanted into different contexts without understanding how that might impact their effectiveness. Secondly, they are saddled with too many varying and at times competing objectives: They are expected to promote healing, to promote reconciliation, to restore dignity for victims, to ensure minimal accountability, and to establish the truth. All of these are lofty objectives that are hard for any institution to make headway on. And particularly in a post-conflict context, it’s even more challenging to do so given the large number of victims that the commission or court is expected to respond to and the large number of perpetrators to potentially block these efforts.

PL: Then why are they used?

Sirleaf:  I think policymakers, by and large, are looking for quick fixes. There’s a conflict and you want to set something up to say that, okay, we’ve addressed the situation here. But in doing that we’re just not clear whether these bodies actually do what we say or think that they do. And we’re not paying enough attention to how those who are impacted by these institutions perceive them. My work is challenging that practice.

PL: Do you recommend alternatives?

Sirleaf: One recommendation for the field of transitional justice is to limit the goals of truth commissions and trials and re-prioritize what these bodies can actually accomplish based on their comparative advantages. For example, in Liberia the truth commission was also empowered to recommend prosecutions and to ensure political accountability, which the truth commission interpreted to mean that it could make lustration recommendations barring people from retaining positions of power or preventing them from acquiring positions of power based on allegations of human rights violations. Truth commissions don’t function well when they function as quasi-courts, because they’re not able to give due process protections and the like. We should have courts focus on determining  individual criminal liability and punishing people, and we should have truth commissions focus on what they do best, which is to formulate a larger historical narrative of the violence that took place and examine the roles that institutions, communities, corporations, and other foreign actors played in contributing to abuses.

Second, recognizing the importance of context is critical to predicting the success of truth commissions and trials.  My work challenges the efficacy of the reflexive use of truth commissions and trials in both post-authoritarian and post-conflict contexts.  Its findings suggest that combinations of truth and punishment mechanisms are likely to be more effective at accomplishing stated objectives.  Additionally, it is critical that the affected society and particularly victims’ expectations are not unduly raised and careful attention is paid to the messages sent regarding what the commission or trial can actually be expected to accomplish.  Lastly, much more attention needs to be given to truly “victim-centered” approaches following mass violence, which attempt to respond to the needs of survivors of massive human rights violations and affected societies.

PL: Switching gears, have you found Penn Law a congenial place to pursue this research? How does it intersect with your teaching?

Sirleaf: I really like the fact that there is so much focus on interdisciplinary scholarship. Understanding the value that different perspectives on the law bring and having that synergy really helps inform your scholarship. You’re forced to make your scholarship more relevant for a host of other fields. That is unique to Penn. The environment here is very challenging, but also very supportive, and I like that as well.