If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’re familiar with the peace vs. justice debate about the value of international accountability mechanisms in post-conflict settings. I won’t inflict my opinions about this on you again, except to note one thing: These arguments are invoked with regard to developing countries in which violent conflict is ongoing or newly ended, but some recent comments by a member of the Obama transition team about the decision not to pursue trials for Bush administration officials for the use of torture against detainees have surprising resonance with this debate.
In a panel discussion on 9/11 last week, Berkeley Law School dean Christopher Edley, Jr. apparently remarked that the decision not to prosecute was undertaken in part because “it was thought that the CIA, NSA, and military would revolt.” I assumed (correctly, it turns out*) that he meant “revolt” in the fuzzy, metaphorical sense of the word where maybe some NSA analysts would just start showing up late to work with one too many shirt buttons undone. However, the interwebs are taking it a different, more coup-y, way, which prompted me to wonder: “peace vs. justice: not just a concern for developing nations anymore?”
The thing is, as shown by Round 1 of this Economist-sponsored throw-down between Richard “Justice on Principle” Dicker and Jack “Pragmatic Peace” Snyder, the two sides of this debate are arguing from very different premises. While Team Justice does make consequentialist arguments (for instance, that impunity can breed future instability), their emphasis is generally on the normative claim that it is morally right to punish perpetrators through criminal prosecutions. Consequently, their response to Team Peace’s consequentialist arguments (that pushing for accountability can undermine prospects for peace by creating perverse incentives for actors who fear prosecution) is often to treat them as beside the point at best, or as spurious dictator-coddling excuses at worst.
However, the fact that criminal trials were viewed as too risky by the Obama administration – in a setting characterized by strong institutions and entrenched democracy – underscores just how high the stakes of pursuing accountability for the crimes of a previous regime are. If the view looks that way from Washington D.C., where the trade-off is “smooth institutional function vs. justice”, imagine what it looks like in contexts where institutions are weak, and the resort to violence is common.
*Updated at 2:40pm following confirmation that Dean Edley was, in fact, speaking metaphorically.