Just Performance: Enacting Justice in the Wake of Violence

A statue and an actor hold their arms up in the airDecember 1-2, 2011

How can societies best recover from widespread violence and human rights violations?

What do public ritual, theater, truth commissions and criminal trials each offer as justice-seeking strategies?

How does performance, broadly conceived, satisfy the human need to understand violence and reconstruct dignity in its wake?

The two-day symposium examined the approaches through which societies seek justice in the aftermath of violent conflict and gross violations of human rights. The exploration focused on four different types of “performance” used by communities and societies to pursue justice and restore trust: public ritual, theater, truth commissions, and judicial proceedings.

Read the opening remarks of Leigh Swigart, director of Programs in International Justice and Society at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, entitled "International Criminal Justice: Do we Expect too Much?

Read the Keynote address by Dr. Salomón Lerner Febres, President of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2001-2003), and expert on different modes of understanding and arriving at justice : "Memoria de la violencia y dramaturgia en el Perú: La experiencia de la Comisión de la Verdad y el Grupo Yuyachkani (Memory of Violence and Drama in Peru: The Experience of the Truth Commission and the Yuyachkani Theater Group)

The symposium marked the publication of the second volume of Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, edited by Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, and Polly O. Walker. Cohen, who heads the Center’s Programs in Peacebuilding and the Arts, directed the symposium along with Leigh Swigart, head of Programs in International Justice and Society. Just Performance represented a coming together of their respective domains and provided an opportunity for sustained reflection on whether and how there might be more cooperation between what are generally seen as distinct responses to conflict.

Symposium panelists were each asked to present a “justice-seeking story” – a personal account of how a particular strategy was used after conflict and how they experienced, observed, and/or analyzed it. The symposium took as its foci three societies where violence, both direct and structural, has left a great need for social healing and for justice: Peru, Cambodia, and the United States. Panelists hailed from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, with scholars and lawyers mixing their voices with those of poets and theater artists.

Whether recounting the dramatic elements of the trial of ex-President Alberto Fujimori in Peru, reciting a Khmer poem about disillusionment with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or describing the inversion of racial roles that took place during the reenactment of a historic lynching in Georgia, panelists’ stories attempted to share with the audience the power of theatrical and ritual performance and how it can sometimes succeed in addressing injustices in a manner not possible through purely legalistic, rational, or discursive means.

The aim of the symposium was not, however, to determine which justice-seeking approach works best. Indeed, it is clear that in many post-conflict societies, a combination of approaches – for example, criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reconciliation rituals, apologies, along with various artistic responses – may prove most effective in answering the full range of needs felt by survivors and the society as a whole. The widely varying contours of each post-conflict situation means that no uniform response to wrongdoing is possible. Through the symposium, participants considered whether and how, in the aftermath of violence, the authority to determine the justice-seeking mechanisms might reside more strongly with the local communities, who are best positioned to take into account local conditions, cultures, and conceptions of justice.

The proceedings of Just Performance were enhanced by the keynote address, delivered by Dr. Salomón Lerner Febres, President of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2001-03). Dr. Lerner’s remarks focused on the special role that theater and ritual played in supporting victims of violence to testify before the commission and establish a record of their suffering at the hands of both Shining Path insurgents and Peruvian state forces.

The Ethics Center was pleased to forge new relationships with colleagues and institutions in the Boston area through the symposium. These include Northeastern University School of Law, which partnered in the organization of the event; Tufts University; the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project, which aims to redress continued feelings of injustice 40 years after racial violence in Boston; and the Trotter Center for the Study of Black History and Culture at the University of Massachusetts. Northeastern University School of Law students recounted their internships carried out in post-conflict situations, including Cambodia, India and Liberia, and at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The Center also appreciated the contributions of Brandeis students from Africa and Asia who served as translators for Cambodian and Peruvian presenters, and shared their own stories about seeking justice and working on different local empowerment projects.

The Just Performance symposium was partially supported by a generous grant from the Curtis International Fund at The Boston Foundation.

Just Performance was directed by Cynthia Cohen and Leigh Swigart of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University. It was organized in collaboration with Northeastern University School of Law and with the support of the Curtis International Council Fund of The Boston Foundation. The symposium was cosponsored by the Brandeis University Department of African and Afro-American Studies; Latin American and Latino Studies; Legal Studies; Mandel Center for the Humanities; the Master's Program in Coexistence and Conflict; the Office of the Arts; and the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies Program. 

Explore related issues with the November 2011 Ethical Inquiry: "Seeking Justice After War Crimes, Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity: Which Approach?"