Seeking justice in wartorn nations

In much of the developed world, justice is something that most people take for granted.

But as Sharon Ravitch has learned, there are some places where justice remains elusive—if not entirely out of reach. That’s especially true in countries ravaged by, or recovering from, ongoing conflict.

Ravitch, who serves as interim director at Penn’s Center for Collaborative Research and Practice in Teacher Education, has been hired by Washington, D.C.-based Global Rights to design a three-year international research study that will focus on four nations facing unique challenges: Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia and Liberia. For the project, Ravitch and her fellow researchers will work directly with residents in each of those nations, helping them understand their rights and then training them to continue the work long after Ravitch and the others have gone.

“When you pull in outside Western researchers, it’s another form of colonialism,” says Ravitch. “What’s important here is that [the residents] are becoming the researchers.”

One of the first steps in the project, Ravitch says, is to understand the plight of the most marginalized groups in these nations, with specific focus on how much access, if any, they have to justice.

Certainly, each of the countries faces significant challenges. Afghanistan has been a center of warfare for decades, and remains so as the United States tries to force out Muslim extremists. Burundi has found peace but nonetheless is struggling to recover from longtime tensions between Tutsis and Hutus. The Colombian government continues to war with guerrilla groups, while Liberians face a tenuous peace after a 2003 end to the nation’s drawn-out civil war.

“We want to really understand what justice means in each of these countries, and then help [these people] access and develop it,” Ravitch says.

“How do they become part of an institution to improve their own conditions? We want to give voice and visibility to some of the most marginalized populations, those that have been so oppressed by conflict.”

Each year, Ravitch and the project leaders will convene a summit to discuss problems and progress with representatives from each nation. Site visits will also take place. Ravitch’s role is to design the research specifics, develop research instruments, analyze data and train both the community activists involved as well as non-governmental organizations that are participating.

“This is a much more democratic, much less hierarchical model for doing international research in developing nations,” Ravitch says. “We’re devising ways to figure out [how to give them] access to justice. We’re educating people about their rights, getting them lists of resources. In that way the research becomes a social-service civil rights intervention.”

The project is a good example of the work that Global Rights undertakes the world over. The three-decade-old organization is a human rights advocacy group that has sought to challenge injustice by partnering with local activists.

The group works to promote women’s human rights and combating discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
It has offices in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mongolia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the United States, and maintains a presence in Algeria, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Nicaragua, Tunisia, Uruguay and Yemen.

For Ravitch, the project is also a way of using her academic expertise to make a tangible contribution to society.

A longtime admirer of Henry Giroux and his idea of the “transformative intellectual,” Ravitch believes universities and scholars have real contributions to make—and should, therefore, make them.

“[Giroux] was framing this as a sense of responsibility,” Ravitch says. “We don’t have to just be thinking about stuff all the time, but can actually be doing stuff. … This project is a very transformative, very impactful intervention.”

Originally published March 6, 2008.

Originally published on March 6, 2008