From the Archives

By Emily Weisenberger


Doughty, Kristin C. 2014. “‘Our Goal Is Not to Punish but to Reconcile’: Mediation in Postgenocide Rwanda.” 

Kingsolver, Ann E. 2013. “Everyday Reconciliation.” 

Stuesse, Angela, Beatriz Manz, Elizabeth Oglesby, Krisjon Olson, Victoria Sanford, Clyde Collins Snow, and Health Walsh-Haney. 2013. “Sí Hubo Genocidio: Anthropologists and the Genocide Trial of Guatemala’s Ríos Montt.” 


Restorative justice is meant to be a victim-centered method of healing and accountability. It typically involves the victim and aggressor engaging in dialogue to mend the impact of a transgression, to witness admissions of guilt, and to discuss harm caused. Communities engage in restorative justice practices throughout the world, including truth and reconciliation trials in Canada condemning state violence against First Nations people to similar trials in South Africa following apartheid.

My current research on racial justice activism intersects with these restorative justice practices. As part of my fieldwork, I have become the secretary of a Tampa-based organization called Restorative Justice Coalition. This organization uses public education campaigns, demonstrations, and political advocacy to reform the criminal justice system around restorative justice rather than punitive action. We call attention to the discriminatory practices of the institution of criminal justice and give those caught in the system the platform to tell their experiences.

My involvement in Tampa’s activist community follows a long-standing practice of anthropologists studying and acting within restorative justice processes. This post deals largely with anthropological work on postgenocide restorative justice and the role of anthropologists in such practices. Their insights have much to offer for anthropologists.

Ann E. Kingsolver’s “Everyday Reconciliation” unpacks restorative justice from an anthropological perspective, urging anthropologists to think critically when studying the institution of reconciliation at any fieldsite. According to Kingsolver, the term reconciliation implies the existence of a previous “equilibrium” that has the potential to be restored. However, she argues this is a false connotation because it is impossible to restore post-genocidal states after loss of life and destruction of lifeways. Rather, states and communities must engage in a process of remaking. Kingsolver writes, “Truth and reconciliation processes and state apologies facilitate moments of articulating and personalizing the structural violence that usually goes unnamed” (665). In this way, public trials can question official state history and propaganda.

In Guatemala, anthropologists contributed to the success of questioning and reconciling the state’s past in the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt, general and president of Guatemala in the 1980s who carried out genocide of the indigenous Maya Ixil. “Sí Hubo Genocidio: Anthropologists and the Genocide Trial of Guatemala’s Ríos Montt” by Angela Stuesse et al. consists of in-depth interviews with six anthropologists who participated in various capacities—as forensic anthropologists, expert witnesses, or consultants—in the truth and reconciliation trial. As a result of the trial, he was convicted of carrying out sexual violence, massacre, and displacement of thousands of people while participating as a major leader and general in the Guatemalan armed conflict decades earlier. Anthropologists specializing in and/or hailing from Guatemala played a large part in collecting, analyzing, and presenting information about the destructive conflict. As the article describes, this application of anthropology was extremely valuable in Ríos Montt’s trial, the first conviction of Indigenous American genocide in five hundred years. For many victims, the outcome of the trial represented justice.

Witness testifies during a genocide trial of former Guatemalan military dictator Ríos Montt. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Restorative justice and truth and reconciliation in practice are not always for the victims, as they are ostensibly intended. Rather, they can succeed in ensuring that a certain moral order comes in to being. Kristin C. Doughty, in “‘Our Goal Is Not to Punish but to Reconcile’: Mediation in Postgenocide Rwanda,” describes her fieldwork during truth and reconciliation trials in Rwanda more than a decade after the Rwandan genocide. Gacaca (genocide) courts were intended to facilitate the reentry of convicted war criminals into their communities. Through ethnographic methods, Doughty illustrates, “how mediation served as a technique of governance…and how exhortations to unity were…linked to broader forms of cultural control” (782). Doughty argues that state-backed truth and reconciliation operates “as a mode of power, one increasingly prevalent in the world today under the guise of transitional justice” (789). Doughty’s observations that restorative justice may be wielded to enhance state power rather than to reconcile past crimes is a powerful reminder that restorative justice trials – like all institutions – cannot always be taken at face value.

It is clear through my own experiences and those of other scholars that anthropologists can have a role in restorative justice processes, potentially enhancing the success of reconciliation and restoration. Kingsolver specifically calls for anthropologists to engage in listening, documenting, and reframing during restorative justice processes: “Anthropology’s professional listening skills and respect for the tenacity and multiplicity of individual and shared vantage points can make useful contributions in the public sphere” (664). As I am analyzing and sharing my research to the public, Kingsolver’s lessons will influence the way I present my conclusions, particularly how I share the multitude of experiences and perspectives of individuals I have had the privilege to interview.

Anthropologists’ involvement in Ríos Montt’s trial emphasized the diverse roles anthropologists can have in restorative justice processes. Anthropologists exhumed graves, analyzed human remains, guided prosecution of crimes against humanity, identified victims, and used ethnographic methods to “unsilence Guatemala’s past” (658). As the secretary of Restorative Justice Coalition, I am also involved in the process of truth and reconciliation. I have the opportunity to use my perspective as an anthropologist to inform decisions within the organization. However, Doughty’s article reminds me to critically analyze both the institution the organization is trying to reform—criminal justice—and the institution I belong to—Restorative Justice Coalition.

CITE AS
Weisenberger, Emily. 2018. “From the Archives: Justice after Genocide and the Anthropologist’s Role.” American Anthropologist website, August 27.

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