In studying human rights law and conflict resolution, you would not be quick to come across a well defined and unchanging definition of “justice” in the literature. Instead, a recovering government looks to a series of goals to achieve. The four primary goals include: (1) taking steps to establish the truth of what happened following a conflict, (2) taking steps to reform internal state systems to ensure that the conflict cannot rear its head again, (3) providing victims with reparations for harms suffered, and (4) punishing perpetrators for their abuses. The goals are non-linear and should be flexible to meet the needs of a particular society.
The desired end result is one where a community can reconcile with their past and future violations and abuses are deterred from happening in the future. Left unpunished and with remaining oxygen, perpetrators often feel emboldened, looking to organize for their next attack.
Looking to historical examples of mass atrocities, the United States has *typically* advocated for this accountability model and in particular, to holding perpetrators accountable. Seeking retribution and reconciliation for such abuses following World War II, the international community, with key aid from the United States, established the Nuremberg and Toyko Tribunals, meant to try the most culpable offenders of Nazi regime. The United States continued to take on hugely influential leadership roles in instances of human rights abuses, creating, funding, and administering international criminal tribunals following mass human rights atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
In fact, there are countless examples where the United States has intervened in the interest of ensuring accountability in states, serving the dual purpose of long term global peace and international credibility.
In more recent history, the United States has adopted an anti-international approach. While having played a heavy role in negotiating the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court, the United States failed to become a member. Under Trump, the United States has retreated even further. Picking fights with NATO, pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council, and making threats and obstructing the work of the WTO, the current administration has made clear that they currently do not support playing a role in global accountability and prefer a hands off approach to stability.
Apparently, that approach has seeped into domestic affairs as well.
On January 6, 2021, white supremacist terrorists breached the Capitol building which was currently hosting every member of Congress, including the future Vice President of the United States and the current Vice President. What at first seemed like a chaotic but spontaneous event to roam the Capitol building, stealing property and flaunting their invasion on social media, is now more accurately being characterized as a planned and organized terrorist attack to overturn a democratically held election which has resulted in upwards of 5 deaths.
The weight of this event cannot be understated. This was an attack on stability, on democracy, and on all the individuals sheltered inside the Capitol, Republicans and Democrats alike. Further reporting has revealed the truly chilling intentions of the terrorists and that any lick of deterrence has not set it, as online activity has shown planning ahead of Inauguration Day.
Despite the consequential nature of the past week, many lawmakers, all of which align themselves with Trumpism politics, have rejected calls for accountability, dismissing any interest in pursing impeachment or support for invoking the 25th amendment, instead insisting the country moves on in the name of “unity.”
While the attack on the Capitol building is not the type of human rights atrocity that the United States was once revered for intervening in, the accountability method utilized by the U.S. for such atrocities is nevertheless applicable to ensure justice and accountability in this instance.
(1) Taking steps to establish the truth of what happened following a conflict.
Independent investigatory commissions need to be initiated to establish and document exactly what occurred at all stages of the attack. The government needs to know how this group became organized, who are their decision makers, how they entered the Capitol building so easily, what were their plans, and how long had such plans been in the works.
By gathering this information, law enforcement and intelligence officials will better know what to look for in the future and be better equipped to prevent a conflict before it happens.
(2) Taking steps to reform internal state systems to ensure that the conflict cannot rear its head again.
One of the most chilling parts of the Capitol occupation was seeing the lack of resistance the terrorists faced from law enforcement, particularly in comparison to the heightened showing of force throughout the summer during BLM protests.
The lack of a forceful showing against the terrorists in the People’s House, on the day election results were being counted, where the current and future Vice President were located as well as the entire Congress, raises serious concerns about the ability of law enforcement to adequately perform their duties.
This needs to be deeply investigated, published, and appropriate reforms need to be made based on their findings.
(3) Providing victims with reparations for harms suffered.
Often when thinking of reparations, we think of financial reparations. But here, reparations can be paid by non-monetary means. Through holding perpetrators accountable, by making the Capitol building a safer place to work, by wholeheartedly and universally condemning this as a terrorist act.
(4) Punishing perpetrators for their abuses.
It is here that the United States has previously been the most forthright in resolving international conflict. Punishing perpetrators is necessary to show that their actions do not align with the values of this country, to silence the movement, and deter future violations.
The punishment may look different for different abusers. For President Trump, the leader behind the movement, he should face the highest of penalties, beginning with the invocation of the 25th amendment or impeachment. Other participants should be charged to the fullest extent of the law.
Without such consequences, there is no deterrence. Moving forward without reconciling with the past does not promote healing, it nurtures trauma.
The United States must take a lesson from a page out of its own history in conflict resolution and hold itself accountable for not only the events of January 6th, but all the less publicized events that occurred prior and enabled this outcome.
There is no justice without reflection and “there is no “healing” without accountability.”