Interpreting Youth Representation in Transitional Justice

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Jeffery, Renee

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O'Neil, Andrew

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The political agency of young people has been increasingly acknowledged within the practice and scholarship on peace and conflict. Recognition that young people have agency denotes a normative shift in the beliefs of the international community with respect to the capacity and position of young people in conflict. This is significant as these beliefs about young people in conflict inform their interactions during post conflict reconstruction. Since the almost unanimous ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), post conflict practices have sought to recognise the active and influential role of young people in conflict and transitional justice. The voices of child soldiers, in particular, occupy a prominent place in the development of post conflict practices as states aim to employ mechanisms that are more inclusive and representative of a diverse range of experiences. These developments in practice, which derived from shifts in the beliefs of stakeholders with respect to the impact of conflict on children, have resulted in increased focus on their needs and experiences within international relations scholarship. The distinct voices of youth however, despite a few notable exceptions in the peacebuilding scholarship, remain largely excluded from the discussion, particularly in the transitional justice field. The same is true within the practice of transitional justice, as an overreliance on the CRC has produced conditions where the distinct agency of youth is either misrepresented or overlooked. One of the most significant challenges facing contemporary transitional justice practices, therefore, is how to reconcile the dilemma that has emerged between normative and external representations of youth and the distinct stories told by youth about their experiences. Where truth and reconciliation processes are concerned, growing acceptance amongst the international community and in transitional states of the importance of reflecting the diverse and unique stories and beliefs of youth presents a unique challenge, particularly in the reporting stage. The widely-held belief that Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) processes are inclusive and representative of voices traditionally excluded from retributive approaches to transitional justice is often tested by the meaningful engagement of youth. Indeed, the broader focus on political reconciliation in TRCs, which prioritises community reconciliation over the restoration of interpersonal relationships, produces a framework for the development of conflict narratives that silences youth whose stories do not fit expectations and beliefs of how young people should experience conflict and participate in transitional justice. While youth are increasingly active participants in the TRC processes of transitional states, their voices continue to be silenced in favour of more conventional beliefs about young people. This is evident in the final reports of TRCs, which demonstrate the persistence of broad, generalised assumptions and binary depictions in their representations of the conflict experiences of young people. In doing so, the reporting stages of TRCs perpetuate conditions that deny youth agency and ownership over their conflict stories. Drawing on the cases of South Africa, Sierra Leone and the Solomon Islands, my thesis examines how TRCs have engaged with youth and represented their stories. I argue that despite significant developments in the visibility of youth in TRC processes, a tension persists between external beliefs about youth and the self-reflections of youth. This tension is problematic as it produces a dilemma for states engaged in the process of reconciliation, particularly those attempting to create a formal record of conflict. I suggest that how youth are represented in the institutional mechanisms of transitional justice has a significant impact on our capacity to understand their experiences of conflict and to adequately address their post-conflict needs. This has implications for how we engage with marginalised stakeholder’s more broadly in reconciliation processes, as it demonstrates the importance of meaningful engagement and interpersonal reconciliation.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Govt & Int Relations

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Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

Transitional justice

Experiences of conflict

Post-conflict needs

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

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