OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Differing Definitions of Justice

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Many intractable conflicts are fought over the concept of "justice," but defining exactly what that concept means is very difficult. Sometimes "justice" is defined in terms of equality--everyone should get or have the same amount, regardless of how hard they work, or "what they put in." Other people define "justice" in terms of equity--people should get benefits in proportion to what they contributed to producing those benefits. In other words, the harder and better you work, the more you should get as a reward for that work. (The opposite can also be argued--that people should suffer costs in proportion to the harm they have done others, which yields the concept of retaliation.) Still other people believe in equity with a bottom "safety-net" level which protects people who, because of misfortune or disability, are unable to work or even help themselves.

There is not any rational way to compare these different approaches, other than to observe that one is more consistent with one culture than another, and that some yield more benefits, or more harm than an other. (The concept of retaliation, while very widespread, tends to cause escalation and can yield enormous harm, for example.) But when people from different cultures come into conflict, as happens so often with minority and ethnic group conflicts, such differing definitions of justice can be very hard to reconcile.

Still another definition of justice focuses not on output, but on process. Results can be "just" if they were obtained by a "just" or fair process. Then the question becomes, what is a fair process? The answer can be that it yields equal outcomes, or equitable outcomes, or that it is predictable, or accessible. Other answers might be it is based on rational cost-benefit analysis, or that it follows traditional procedures. All of these answers are "right," in that justice can be defined in that way, and has often been so.

But problems develop when one party to a conflict defines justice in one way and their opponent(s) define it differently. This happens very often in domination conflicts, in which one much more powerful group defines "justice" in terms of the status quo. (This may be disguised using an equity argument, saying that the more powerful group contributes more to the society, and hence deserves the greater rewards. Or it may be disguised in terms of tradition or predictability.)

The subordinate group, however, often defines justice very differently. They will more likely focus on issues of equality, access to the decision making structure, and/or power. As is true with other framing problems, when the parties define key ideas, such as justice, very differently, coming to a joint agreement on how to even approach a problem can be very difficult.

A different use of the term "justice" is also problematic. This involves the concept of criminal justice. While each culture has its own criminal justice system, these sometimes clash with internationally accepted standards of human rights and other international laws. This yields difficult problems regarding the prosecution of war crimes, human rights abuses, and acts of genocide. What is "justice" in the case of the Khmer Rouge, for instance? Is "justice" consistent or compatible with the concepts of apology and forgiveness which are needed for reconciliation? Or is it opposed to those concepts? Again, there are no clear answers to these questions. At best there are processes, through which societies and the world as a whole can move to try to deal with difficult questions on a case-by-case basis.


Links to Examples of the "Justice Definition" problem:

Accounting for War Crimes in Cambodia
This short account describes Cambodia's dilemma regarding prosecution and/or amnesty for the Khmer Rouge.


Links to Possible Treatments:

Fairness-Based Framing

Needs-Based Framing

Criminal Justice

Amnesty / Forgiveness


Links to Related Problems:

Incompatible Frames

"Into-the-sea" Framing

War Crimes

Failing to identify all of the relevant issues/assuming that everyone else defines the problem the same way you do.

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu