A new strategy to strengthen transitional justice

April 28, 2021

Joanna Quinn, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science

Photo and story by Rob Rombouts

Following a civil war, periods of violence or wrongdoing by government, states have turned to ways of dealing with the past like truth and reconciliation commissions to resolve lasting conflict. But too often these transitional justice processes fail to make lasting change in society. When the hearings or commissions end, many people feel the process is complete and are content to move on. This is often done without having implemented any changes, or really coming to terms with the historical wrongs.

Joanna Quinn feels the transitional justice efforts would benefit from the development of a basic understanding in society, a ‘Thin Sympathy’.

Quinn, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, describes this concept in her new book Thin Sympathy: A Strategy to Thicken Transitional Justice.

Quinn has spent twenty years working in Uganda interviewing many people across the country, including women, children, and leaders in government, faith groups, NGOs and traditional institutions. Based on her interviews and observations, Quinn feels many efforts towards transitional justice fail because many people are not connected to the situation. Those who are disconnected, and therefore unaffected, see the efforts of reconciliation as pointless or just part of a series of ongoing grievances from different cultures.

Quinn said the failure of the commissions comes from a belief that the wider population will begin to care about the matters at hand, as the commissions do their work and issue their reports and recommendations. These reports, however, are often presented to a population that does not understand the historical context or feel there is a need to change.

When considering how to improve the outcome of these efforts, many people acknowledge a need to create empathy for those involved.

“Empathy is a big emotional response that says I need to feel what you feel and experience what you feel,” said Quinn. “I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation that people can develop that deep understanding of what they went through.”

Instead, she said, before an official process starts, there should be an effort to create connections between population groups, and build awareness and engagement in the wider population. These efforts will allow for better results from the transitional justice process.

“Thin Sympathy is the on-ramp to the empathic super-highway,” she said. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that we can’t get everyone all the way there, but we can at least get them on the on-ramp.”

Thin sympathy can be built by many parties and in many ways, Quinn said. In Uganda, a group of people organized a cross-country bicycle tour, allowing for diverse cultural groups to engage with one another. In Western Uganda, a news outlet prints the same story in different languages, side-by-side, to introduce people of different cultural groups, highlighting the commonalities.

“It’s about breaking down stereotypes and biases, by making them more familiar to each other, and in that familiarity, they find things in common,” said Quinn. “When we know people better, we hate them less.”
While Quinn’s book focuses on Uganda, she said the concept could easily be applied to issues around the world, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“We had the TRC, and it failed in all sorts of ways,” she said. “If we had paused and made more Canadians aware beforehand, we could have seen more and better results come out of it.”

Quinn said many Canadians cannot connect the dots between Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and boil water advisories, and may see many issues impacting Indigenous populations as an annoyance.

“If you don’t understand the situation, then the continuing issues won’t make sense,” Quinn said. “If you understand the context, the background and the history, there may be more to build on to start to deal with the actual issues.”

Thin Sympathy: A Strategy to Thicken Transitional Justice’ is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.