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Acronyms used to conceptualise transitional justice and forced displacement can have negative political consequences when deployed to understand situations and inform interventions, observes Adam Branch, as ‘people start to take that acronym for uncontested reality, forgetting the words that make it up’.

When I proposed this paper, I was planning on giving one of my usual diatribes –pointing out the key role of the aid agencies and donors in enabling and sustaining the forced internment of the Acholi population, of a million people for a decade in squalid camps, and the aid agencies’ and donors’ complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Then I was going to ask what modes of justice might be used to hold them accountable, and denounce the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the transitional justice industry for refusing or failing to address the crime of forced displacement and internment.

That is what I was planning when I proposed the paper – but I am tired of launching the same polemic, and besides it is detailed in a book that is coming out next month, so I figure I’ll take this opportunity to do something else, and talk about the relation between transitional justice and forced displacement in slightly more theoretical terms, focusing on the politics of the concepts themselves as they play out in northern Uganda.

I want to focus on two acronyms: One from the world of forced migration, which is IDP; and the other TJ, for transitional justice, itself.

I believe that both of these acronyms are ideological, instead of analytic, let alone critical, concepts, and I believe that this can lead them to have negative political consequences when they are deployed to understand situations and inform interventions.

We see acronymisation constantly at work in the field of transnational administration and intervention – whether in R2P, IDP, NGO, etc. I believe that what acronymisation does, by replacing the actual words, words with their own meanings and histories, ambivalences and contradictions and conflicts, with a fetishistic acronym, is that all those multiple histories, meanings, contradictions, and struggles that are contained in words such as ‘responsibility’ or ‘displaced’ or ‘organisation’ or ‘justice’ are erased. Instead, we have a reified category whose history and meaning is entirely under the control of those who have invented it, who use it, who then create journals about it – witness the inception of journals dedicated to transitional justice, internal displacement, and R2P (Responsibility to Protect), all in the last few years!

The consequence is that we start to take that acronym for uncontested reality, forgetting the words that make it up. This sets the stage for a technicisation, whereby the ambiguity and uncertainty of the words going into the acronym are forgotten and it is given a transparent, positive meaning. This allows such acronyms to preside over the development of technical regimes of thought and action, totally divorced from, but deriving a legitimacy from, the words that go into them, even if those words are forgotten – witness the frequency with which R2P is called the Right to Protection or the Right to Protect!

The fields of discourse and practice become about the specification of tools, of means, without careful attention to the ends to which those tools are to be put. This focus on the constant expansion and development of tools, of technical means which can be applied to any situation, leads to a certain blindness.

On the TJ side: In the case of TJ, the tools of TJ do not have to be assessed according to different or divergent interpretations of the words that go into TJ, transitional or justice.

There is a blindness about different possibilities and meanings of justice and of different possibilities and meanings of transition.

This seems to be borne out today in Uganda. Here, as many of us know, the TJ industry has landed like a giant marabou stork. Its operations are mostly around the legacy of the war in the north, which pitted the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) against the Ugandan government for almost 20 years.

The TJ incursion was sparked largely by the ICC intervention and its one-sided prosecution of the LRA. This provoked demands for so-called traditional justice, demands for blanket amnesty, calls for national trials, calls for the ICC to prosecute all sides and not just the LRA, and so on.

The answer that was given by the TJ project was, in best TJ fashion, a compromise, a call for ALL these things. Use all the tools of TJ, the recipe being the ICC for the LRA, national trials for other high-ranking leaders of the LRA and Ugandan government, traditional justice and amnesty for lower-ranking LRA, traditional reconciliation between different ethnic groups, maybe a truth commission, combined with a dose of memorialisation, and perhaps even some reparations, but certainly a nice reconstruction package.

However, the TJ project here was in a sense born posthumously. Since the LRA moved out of Northern Uganda in 2006, this technical project has lost all touch with reality. It is free-floating, staring at a specific episode from the past, while political exclusion and repression mount in the present, wealth accumulates further in the elite, the country militarises.

Transitional justice – TJ – diverts the debate from the discussion of transition. Justice is what needs to be done about an episode of violence from the past, and is blind to the mounting and generalised injustice of the political and economic order today. Meanwhile, the stirrings of a possible political transition that were seen a few months ago are ignored – testament to TJ’s blindness to politics.

The ironic aspect of this current ideologisation of TJ is that those two words, transitional and justice, are both very rich, loaded, ambiguous words. They are the kind of words that, if taken seriously, would constantly threaten to rupture any attempt to reify their meaning within a set of technocratic concepts and tools.

On to the forced migration side: The situation in northern Uganda clearly fits under the category of forced migration, I wonder how productive it is to place what happened in northern Uganda between 1996 and around 2007 under this rubric. Forced migration seems to have become an extremely, almost impossibly, broad category. I wonder if the different phenomena ranked under forced migration are more analogous, rather than homologous – that is, we don’t study butterflies and bats together because they both have wings.

But there are also questions about the more specific category that has been applied to the situation in northern Uganda – IDP.

The category of the IDP is a neutral, non-political designation, conflating those displaced due to natural disaster, those voluntarily fleeing to government-controlled areas to avoid rebel violence, and those forcibly displaced by their own government. Thus, in northern Uganda, the IDP designation occluded the reason for displacement – namely, a brutal government counterinsurgency –leaving it unquestioned, and turned displacement into something that was to be resolved, not through return home, but through technical humanitarian intervention to ameliorate IDP suffering. In so doing, it transformed people from citizens living within their own country and thus deserving of certain constitutionally guaranteed rights into an identity that implies only the provision of charity by foreign humanitarians.

Now, in northern Uganda, it is my argument that the Ugandan government profited immensely from this humanitarianisation of forced displacement through the IDP discourse. This discourse erased the reasons for displacement from the debate and moralised, depoliticised, and externalised responsibility for dealing with displaced civilians to the so-called international community through aid provision.

The IDP category, by technicising and depoliticising, contributed to what anthropologist Sverker Finnstrom has called the official discourse on the conflict. This discourse silenced any criticism of the government’s policy of mass forced displacement and internment or of the aid agencies’ and donors’ role in enabling the government’s counterinsurgency. Supporters of the aid regime or of the government’s military approach could declare the existence of a humanitarian emergency and invoke the desperate plight of IDP victims in order to accuse critics of being insensitive to, and even complicit with, victims’ suffering. The humanitarian enterprise, based around the category of the IDP, shifted the very terms in which displacement was framed so that the violence and death that in fact resulted from the government’s policy of forced displacement was turned into a purely humanitarian problem to be solved by foreign aid agencies through their moral commitment to helping IDP victims of the LRA. The fact of displacement itself could not be questioned; no longer was the solution to disband the camps and help the Acholi to return home, but to provide more aid to the IDPs. The humanitarian incursion normalized forced internment and effaced the possibility of challenging it as a war crime or crime against humanity. The imposition of an administrative aid regime, based upon the category of the IDP, which itself depended on the invocation of exceptionality for its own legitimacy, ended up normalising violence and suffering within its discursive categories.

In my work, I make this kind of argument for a series of other forms of intervention that take place in the name of human rights and peace – relief aid, peacebuilding, conflict resolution, development, civil society promotion, women’s empowerment, the ICC, traditional justice, and military intervention through the US AFRICOM – and argue that for each, because it does not take into account the context of displacement, because it did not take into account the forced nature of displacement, because it takes the depoliticised, decontextualised IDP category as given, as a humanitarian category, as a victim category, as a category whose capacity is to be built, ends up naturalising forced displacement, and putting the political relations and the modes of violence that led to and sustained forced displacement and massive civilian suffering beyond question.

That is why I don’t use the category of IDP except to critique it as part of the ideology of intervention in northern Uganda, an ideology that in fact helped enable forced displacement, sustain the war, militarise the state, and give rise to the humanitarian crisis.

I prefer to use the category of citizen, which serves to ground resistance both against the violence of the government in forcibly displacing its own people and the depoliticisation and complicity of Western donors and international aid agencies.

This brings up a broader point, which is that, I think that the categories of research need to be politically meaningful categories, and that without this, theorisation will be ad hoc, arbitrary, and often tend toward depoliticised, technical categories – and thus lead to a technicisation of war, displacement, suffering.

This is the problem that northern Uganda reveals with the category of IDP – in this case, it is not a politically meaningful category. That is why I argue that in northern Uganda it is not productive to study IDPs – one can study episodes that can be categorised under internal displacement, but then one end up studying other things, other, politically meaningful, categories, not IDPs, and building theory that cuts at right angles to forced migration as a category.

In my work, I try to bring politics back in to understand a series of phenomena from which politics have been evacuated in dominant concepts and understandings: The war in northern Uganda; violence in Africa; humanitarianism; IDPs; peacebuilding; development; empowerment and capacity building; international law enforcement; R2P; human rights enforcement; traditional justice; and counterterrorism. By bringing politics back in, I hope that we can break mass forced interment – a war crime – and justice out of their ideological petrification in IDP and TJ, and perhaps use the latter to productively address the former.


* Adam Branch is a visiting research scholar at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, and assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University.
* This article forms part of the 'IASFM13: Governing migration' special issue, produced in collaboration with the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) and the Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University, Kampala.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.