Justice Conflicts

Michelle Maiese

July 2003

Injustice and Conflict

If a government is unjust, people may see violence as the only way of getting their needs met. And once people come to believe that they suffer from grave injustice, they are unlikely to be willing to compromise, thus making conflicts intractable. Thus, assertions of injustice often lead to intractable conflict.

There are many different types of justice and many different ways that the term might be defined. In some cases people speak of distributive justice, or fairness of outcome in the way various resources are allocated. In other cases, people refer to procedural justice, or the fairness of the procedures used for allocation or other types of decision-making. Issues of retributive or restorative justice, on the other hand, concern the proper way to address instances of injustice. While many agree that justice is linked to the notion of fairness, ideas about what is fair differ among various contexts. In fact, it is difficult to give a complete and adequate definition of justice or what it means to behave justly. Nevertheless, most observers can recognize clear examples of serious distributive or procedural injustice when they arise.[1] Such injustice is the source of serious economic, political, and social problems.

Grave political and economic injustice and abuse of human rights prompt conflict. Indeed, history has shown that poverty often leads to war and armed conflict, and that wars are more likely to be fought in countries that lack fair and effective political and legal institutions. This is in part because perceived injustice is a frequent source of conflict.[2] This injustice is often characterized by the denial of fundamental political rights, such as freedom of speech or religion, or neglect of economic rights, such as access to adequate food and housing.

Political injustices often involve the denial of voting rights or due process, infringements on rights to freedom of speech or religion, and inadequate protection from cruel and unusual punishment.[3] Such injustices often stem from unfair procedures and involve political systems in which some but not others are allowed to have voice and representation in the processes and decisions that affect them.[4] If voting procedures, for example, are perceived as unjust, any outcome they produce is liable to be unstable and produce conflict.[5]

In some cases these unfair conditions are imposed by authoritarian governments and in others by outside aggressors. When political or legal institutions fail to protect individuals' fundamental rights and liberties, members of the unjustly treated group feel disempowered.[6] They are likely to view the institutions that impose such conditions as unjust.

Economic injustice, on the other hand, involves the state's failure to provide individuals with basic necessities of life, especially when the elite of that society live in relative luxury.[7] If many members of a society suffer from poverty or perceive huge disparities in wealth, they are likely to consider their situation unjust.[8] Furthermore, economic injustice is often linked to unmet human needs, which can give rise to protracted or violent conflict.

Individuals may come to view violence as the only way to address the injustice they have suffered and ensure that their fundamental needs are met. This is especially likely if no procedures are in place to correct the situation or bring about retributive or restorative justice.

Justice conflicts often involve unequal power relationships, where the rights and needs of the weaker group are subordinated to those of the dominant group. This sort of injustice is often rooted in ideologies of exclusion that are deeply embedded in people's ways of thinking and difficult to alter. Such power imbalances limit the bargaining power of the group that suffers from injustice, and make it more likely that the group will go to extreme ends to make its voice heard. Groups may wish to challenge their low political or social status, and struggle to gain more power.

If the dominant group's leaders and policies are viewed as legitimate by most of its members, conflict is not likely to arise. This might occur in situations where a national belief system "sanctifies and rationalizes the domination of some groups by others."[9] However, if these leaders or policies are viewed as illegitimate by most of the population, this will detract from their power. The subordinate group is then more likely to rise up and challenge this injustice.[10] In cases of tyranny, the subordinate group typically recognizes the illegitimacy and exploitative nature of the conditions imposed by the dominant group. Society members often feel alienated from their leaders and withdraw their commitment to the political system in question.

If the prevailing conditions come to be viewed as unjust by enough society members, rebellion or revolution may ensue. The oppressed are even more likely to rise up in revolt if they ever perceive weakness on the part of their aggressor.[11] Members of the dominant group, on the other hand, will typically resist these attempts to alter the status quo and shift the balance of power. They may also reject the other side's claims that the current conditions are unjust. Parties thus find themselves in the midst of a justice conflict.

The Intractability of Justice Conflicts

As noted above, conflict is often mobilized around the concept of justice. In many cases, challenging injustice is the first step towards eliminating it. And if diplomatic avenues have been exhausted or are not available, a party's resort to armed force may be the only way to protect its people from human rights violations or other serious injustice. Such conflict may draw international attention to people's grievances, and increase the likelihood that they are freed from injustice.

However, conflicts that center on issues of justice also tend to be intractable. This is in part because reaching an agreement about what qualifies as injustice is often exceedingly difficult. Those who benefit from injustice often perpetuate it, often without being fully aware that they are contributing to injustice. Not surprisingly, victims are typically more sensitive to injustice than victimizers.[12] What seems fair to one person may not seem fair to another, and these perceptions are often affected by self-interest. However, parties often speak of justice in absolute terms, as some independent and objective standard of fairness that should be used to determine who is right.[13]

Not surprisingly, once one group has framed the conflict in terms of justice, it becomes much more difficult to resolve. If one or both groups advance their claim as a matter of justice, moderate positions become less likely. Parties that believe they have suffered injustice may claim a higher moral ground for themselves, hardening their position to the point of inflexibility.[14] People are typically unwilling to compromise on justice issues, or even enter into dialogue with those whose points of view differ from their own.[15] Negotiation and problem solving thus become more difficult, and actual interests are obscured as the conflict becomes framed as a win-lose one.[16] People who believe that their cause is just are unlikely to back down. And for those who believe they have suffered grave injustices, forgiveness and reconciliation become much more difficult psychologically.

In fact, those who feel they have been the victims of injustice or unfair treatment may grow extremely angry and feel justified in seeking revenge. Or, they may blame members of the other group and denigrate them as morally inferior, paving the way for dehumanization and more violence.[17] This may simply lead to further injustice and cause the conflict to esclate out of control. If vengeance becomes the primary goal, attention may be shifted away from addressing the central justice issues that gave rise to conflict in the first place.

To avoid violent conflict, concerted international action is needed to address systemic economic injustice. Nations need to develop institutions of fair governance, such as an accountable police force and judiciary. They also need to help provide health care and education, and encourage an inclusive society. Addressing injustice is central to the resolution of most intractable conflicts.

Further Dangers

Associated with the awareness that one suffers from injustice are feelings of moral outrage, resentment, and a sense of helplessness.[18] These feelings are crucial in motivating people to challenge injustice and attempt to undo it. People often commit themselves to a cause because they believe it can redress the injustices suffered, and this can be very effective. However, the sense of injustice that arises "out of the underlying divisions of power and prosperity in a society" can also be dangerously exploited.[19]

The same feelings of anger and desperation that motivate people to challenge injustice also make them more susceptible to manipulation by corrupt or extremist leaders. Such leaders may utilize concerns about justice to gain support for conflict driven by ulterior motives. Leaders often mobilize people into war by appealing to people's poor economic conditions, their lack of political power or their experience of discrimination. Such issues can escalate conflict and make it more polarized. Indeed, violent conflict can easily develop if large numbers of people become convinced that waging war is the only way to rectify an unjust situation.[20]

In the case of Kosovo, for example, Milosevic mobilized popular support for ethnic conflict around the theme of injustice suffered by innocent Serbs.[21] While the Serbs did suffer real grievances, the true sources of this injustice were distorted and racialized. And rather than trying to address these legitimate concerns, Milosevic and his allies used them to their own advantage, to create images of injustice.[22] They needed to rely on such grievances to "mobilize the population into violent conflict along ethnic lines."[23] Thus, issues of justice often intensify conflict associated with ethnicity, nationality, and religion.

[1] Paul Wehr and others, Justice Without Violence. (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994), 9.

[2] Morton Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict," in The Handbook of Conflict.

Resolution: Theory and Practice, M. Deutsch and P. Coleman, eds. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 52.

[3] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 37.

[4] Deutsch, 56.

[5] Deutsch, 52.

[6] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 9.

[7] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 258.

[8] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 37.

[9] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 260.

[10] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 38.

[11] Wehr, Burgess, and Burgess, 259.

[12] Deutsch, 45.

[13] William Ury, J. Brett, and S. Goldberg, Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Cost of Conflict. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988), 7.

[14] Deutsch, 55.

[15] Mary Ann Glendon. Rights TalkL: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, reprint edition. (New York: Free Press, 1993), 9.

[16] Deutsch, 52.

[17] Deutsch, 55.

[18] Deutsch, 45.

[19] Dan Smith, "Trends and Causes of Armed Conflict," in Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation [handbook on-line]. Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2002, accessed 31 January 2003; available from http://www.berghof-handbook.net/articles/smith-handbook.pdf; Internet.

[20] Dan Smith, Trends and Causes of Armed Conflict [article on-line]. (Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2000, accessed 31 January 2003); available from http://www.berghof-handbook.net/articles/smith-handbook.pdf; Internet.

[21] Chip Gagnon, "Ethnic Conflict as Demobilizer: The Case of Serbia," Institute for European Studies Working Paper 96, no. 1 Cornell University (1996), available from http://www.ithaca.edu/gagnon/articles/demob/demob02.htm; Internet.

[22] Gagnon, http://www.ithaca.edu/gagnon/articles/demob/demob02.htm.

[23] Gagnon, http://www.ithaca.edu/gagnon/articles/demob/demob02.htm.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Justice Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/justice-conflicts>.

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