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How Transitional Justice Could Heal The Country's Deep Divides05:29
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The American flag flies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)
The American flag flies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Biden ran on a campaign calling for unity and justice — but he inherits a politically and racially divided country with few shared truths.

Anna Myriam Roccatello, deputy executive director of the International Center of Transitional Justice and a former United Nations official, says transitional justice techniques could help heal the divide. Roccatello has used transitional justice techniques to help build back countries after wars.

Transitional justice is a political process that aims to provide justice in places that “have witnessed a massive number of violations of the most fundamental rights, to an extent that the social contract between citizens and institutions has deteriorated or collapsed at times,” she says. “Therefore, it's imperative to renegotiate that social contract based on equality and recognition and protection of the rights of everyone.”

Transitional justice recognizes past wrongdoings, but half of Americans don’t believe that the Trump administration did anything problematic. Roccatello argues that transitional justice should be used to address systemic abuses and harms linked to the legacy of slavery in the U.S.

The U.S. would need to determine how to best establish a historical narrative that acknowledges wrongdoings, restores rights and prevents violations from recurring, she says.

Some of this work, especially around repair and reparation, is already happening across the country in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Greensboro, North Carolina. More cities and states are now implementing transitional justice techniques, such as the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Truth is certainly the cornerstone of any political transition, to have a base that can inspire reforms and corrective measures,” she says.

Americans don't have a shared truth, as Biden laid out in his inauguration speech. The truth is well-documented in the U.S., she says, but changing will require policies that help people understand our history in today’s context.

“The truth is out there,” she says. “The issue is how to share, how to speak about that truth, and how to reach those that, from a different ideological position, do not see that truth or do not realize how a legacy of racial injustice has permeated the contemporary history, and how slavery has transformed into other forms of discrimination and marginalization.”


Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 21, 2021.

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