Center for Conflict Studies Knowledge as Action, Action as Change

Panel III: Justice in conflicts over race and ethnicity

Friday, November 15, 2013 at 4:00 PM

1. Tristan Mabry: Ethnic Conflict and Cultural Justice: The Question of Minority Language Rights

2. Amer Shurrab: Justice Lost: Legal challenges facing Palestinian victims in the Israeli and international justice system

3. Brandon Zitar, Rebekah Samaniego, Elliot Montagano and Kevin Kopsky: ... And Justice for All: How Opinions of Justice Increase Conflict Intensity

4. Jen Marlowe: Art & Truth-Telling: Alternative Forms of Justice


Tristan Mabry


Tristan James Mabry is a Lecturer in the Department of National Security Affairs, School of International Graduate Studies, at the Naval Postgraduate School.  Previously, he taught in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, and in the joint Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College.  His first career was in journalism, as a writer and producer for CNN, and as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Tristan is a specialist in the comparative politics of nationalism, ethnic conflict, and identity politics across Eurasia, including Central, South, and Southeast Asia.  His research addresses the intersection of ethnicity, language and religion, particularly in cases of separatist movements found across the Muslim world. He is currently finishing a book on the relationship between nationalism and Islam based on field research in Iraq, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere.


Ethnic Conflict and Cultural Justice: The Question of Minority Language Rights

The question of justice for speakers of minority languages is a perennial component of ethnic conflict.  Why should this be the case?  To the extent that an ethno-linguistic community has its own culture, and that a shared culture is an essential criteria of an ethno-national group, then a shared language is conventionally perceived as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the very existence of a nation.  Because claims to national self-determination are often met with resistance from a state that simply denies the ethnic group is a bona fide nation, one of the most common ways to accomplish this fiat is to deny the existence of that group’s distinct language.

This is sometimes implemented by ‘downgrading’ a language to the status of ‘dialect.’  In more extreme cases, however, separatist ethnic groups often find that their languages are effectively banned, including proscriptions on using a mother tongue in both the public and private sphere: in the former to include dealings with state institutions (courts, political representation, and especially public education); and in the latter to include even the right to name a child in your own language.  When a conflict has effectively concluded and peace building begins, it is therefore not at all surprising that a frequent point of contention is language rights.  If a group is granted autonomy, for example, will their language be allowed in police stations or schools or on television?  Will such capacities be restricted to a region or granted across the state itself?  And what legal guarantees may be established to protect the rights of minority language speakers?

When such questions are debated in the context of language rights, adversaries frequently divide themselves into two camps: the liberals, advocating rights to all citizens irrespective of their ethnolinguistic identity as a form of universal justice, and the multiculturalists, who argue the rights of a group must be protected so that members of that group may actualize the potential of a distinct society.  This debate is in no way limited to post-conflict scenarios, and is, in fact, the same debate practiced by proponents and opponents of bilingual and/or mother tongue language of instruction in the United States.  However, in the context of ethnic conflict, it is sometimes argued that individual language rights may be less important than group rights if the goal is to prevent the reoccurrence of violence.  In this way, the language rights of individuals may be sacrificed in the interest of building peace.

It is this conundrum that is at the center of discussions of ethnic conflict, peace building and justice for speakers of minority languages.  To illustrate this dynamic, fieldwork findings are presented from three cases of ethnic conflict: the Kurds of Iraq, the Sindhis of Pakistan and the Uyghurs of China.  Evidence is drawn from interviews with separatist leaders on the specific question of language rights as they seek to obtain or build a just peace.  In each case, the question of determining justice for speakers of both minority and majority languages is considered directly.

Amer Shurrab


Amer Shurrab is currently pursuing a Masters of Art degree in International Policy Studies as well as well as a Master of Business Administration in International Management at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. He obtained a Bachelors of Art in Economics from Middlebury College in Vermont and attended the United World College of the Adriatic in Duino, Italy. Amer has participated in hearing and panels and tours across the United States to speak about the devastation that struck his family during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009. He has also highlighted the suffering and numerous injustices Palestinians in Gaza suffer from as a result of the Israeli occupation and siege. Amer spoke at the US Congress, Georgetown University, University of Illinois and the University of Arizona partnering with organizations such Jewish Voice for Peace, Islamic Relief USA and the American Friends Service Committee.


Justice Lost: Legal challenges facing Palestinian victims in the Israeli and international justice system

Since it has started its military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories Israel has committed a wide array of gross human rights violations against the occupied population. The Israeli actions include lethal attacks, assassinations, collective punishment, torture and disproportionate use of force. These actions are in violation of the Fourth Geneva convention, international laws of war and can amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This paper discusses the obstacles and challenges Palestinian victims and their families face when pursuing justice and accountability in Israeli courts and beyond. In Israel, Palestinians face challenges to physically access the courts and bring witnesses to hearings, strict filing deadlines and procedures and inappropriate or non-existent investigations. Moreover, Israel has recently passed laws to provide a retroactive umbrella legal immunity to soldiers’ actions in “combat zones.” The paper incorporates field work and empirical research. The author gathered Information through formal and informal conversations and interviews conducted with victims’ families, lawyers and human rights organizations working in the area. Moreover, the author’s family’s own experience in pursuit of justice highlights the structural violence the victims are attempting to overcome.

Palestinian victims and human rights organizations have also attempted to file lawsuits against “Israeli war crimes” in countries with universal jurisdictions. However, Israel has successfully lobbied many of these countries such as Spain and Belgium either to drop the cases or change their laws to the point where they no longer have jurisdictions.

The international Criminal Court (ICC) remains a possible venue for accountability, although the victims would still have to overcome considerable obstacles to gain access.

The empirical work in this paper is not based on a set of interview or research over a period of a few weeks or months. It is the product of years of personal experience living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and being a member of a family that have lost loved ones on the hands of the Israeli army. Moreover, the author has conducted interviews and taken part in formal and informal conversations with family members, friends victims’ families, local and international activists as well as lawyers and human rights organizations working on behalf of victims and their families.

Brandon Zitar, Rebekah Samaniego, Elliot Montagano and Kevin Kopsky


Brandon Zitar (presenter) is a second year doctoral student at the University of North Texas. He received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Social Science from the University of North Texas. As an undergraduate Brandon received the Ralph Yarborough award for the best undergraduate paper in Political Science for the 2011-2012 terms. His focus as a graduate student is in political theory, and his research interests include ancient and enlightenment period political philosophy, national security, and international relations. Brandon served five years in the United States Marine Corps and has volunteered as a youth leader in the Boys Scouts of America for the last two years.

Rebekah Samaniego is a second year doctoral student and McNair Fellow at the University of North Texas. She received an Associate of Science from North Central Texas College prior to her transfer to the University of North Texas where she has earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and English. As a McNair scholar and member of the honors college, she conducted undergraduate research on the arbitrary nature of capital punishment in Texas. She has presented her research at numerous conferences including the Southwest Political Science Association, the Southern Political Science Association, and the Great Plains Honors Council where she was the recipient of the Dennis Boe Award for outstanding scholarly work by an undergraduate honors student. Her current research interests include the development and implementation of international law, transitional justice, and constitutional law.

Elliot Montagano is a second year doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Political Science Department at the University of North Texas. Prior to attending the University of North Texas, Elliot completed a Bachelor of Arts with a double concentration in History and Philosophy at Salve Regina University for which he received the Brother John F. Buckley Award for Exemplary Research in American History. He went on to earn a Master of Arts in Political Science with a focus in political philosophy at Boston College. His current research is in Enlightenment political thought and its implications for and treatment of religion.

Kevin Kopsky is a master’s student at the University of North Texas focusing on European military history. He received an associate of arts from North Central Texas College prior to transferring to the University of North Texas where he graduated with honors earning his bachelor’s degree in history with a focus on Modern European history and conflict. He is currently a member of the National History Honor Society, Phi Alpha Theta, and his paper on the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944 has been accepted for presentation at the Sandhurst War College in London, England. He plans to continue research on the impact of the Balkan front, particularly Greece and Crete in the Second World War, while pursuing a Ph.D. in modern military history and conflict.


... And Justice for All: How Opinions of Justice Increase Conflict Intensity

When justice is understood as a moral claim like deservedness, fairness, or rightness, the international arena must have an understanding of justice that is itself grounded in some type of morality. Much of the modern understanding of international relations stands in stark contrast to a moral imperative for justice and instead embraces the Hobbesian understanding of the state of nature as total anarchy. This paper proposes to examine the viability of a morally based international conception of justice within the framework of the Hobbesian state of nature.

Hobbes said, “[w]here there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.” He saw the need for the social contract and an absolute authority to establish and enforce laws, but in the absence of an international sovereign, justice remains relative and fragmented.  To move from the Hobbesian state of nature and into peace requires that justice be enforced. Justice has no moral basis in the state of anarchy and can only exist once enforceable laws have been established. Rule of law must precede claims of justice in order for peace to be established. This paper will demonstrate that from the Hobbesian understanding of the state of anarchy, justice can only be the result of enforceable laws to which all in the international community must willingly submit. So, rather than resolving conflict and moving toward peace, this paper will seek to demonstrate that attempting to enforce justice in the absence of complete international compliance can actually result in an increase in conflict.

Defining justice as fairness or deservedness inherently implies multiple perspectives, an uncertainty that consequently leads to conflict when opposing sides differ on their interpretations of justice. The situation is exacerbated when third parties endorse one side over another, and we expect to see a rise in conflict when this occurs. Particularly, we will consider the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1948 to the present to see if third party intervention increases conflict duration and intensity in this area. We will focus on United Nation Security Council resolutions involving Israel and Palestine. Resolutions that focus on bringing justice to the conflict will be compared against the Correlates of War interstate conflict data set to determine the strength of the correlation between these resolutions and conflict intensity.

We intend to collect the data and run the analysis between August 5, and November 1, 2013.   

Jen Marlowe


Jen Marlowe is a Seattle-based award-winning author, documentary filmmaker, and human rights activist.  Her most recent book is I Am Troy Davis (Haymarket Books, 2013) and her most recent documentary film is One Family in Gaza.  Jen co-directed/co-produced the award-winning documentary film Darfur Diaries: Message from Home and wrote the accompanying book Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. Jen’s second award-winning documentary is Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home. Jen also co-authored, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker which won the Middle East Monitor’s Palestine Book Award. Jen is the playwright of There is a Field, addressing issues faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. Jen’s most recent documentary is One Family in Gaza. Jen is in the midst of working on a documentary film about Bahrain. Jen’s articles can be found at The Nation, The Progressive,,, Massachusetts Review and Yes! Magazine.


Art & Truth-Telling: Alternative Forms of Justice

What options are available when courts and governments fail to provide justice? How might alternative forms of justice be provided?

My talk will focus on stories of three families who have undergone the killing of a family member by state authorities. Though these families never received (and are not likely to receive) justice at the hands of the state that committed the violation, the talk will explore how artistic expressions such as books, plays, or documentary films can be a part of providing alternative forms of justice.  Specifically, I will discuss my process of working with the families to tell their stories through a play (There Is A Field) documenting the killing of a Palestinian-Israeli teenaged peace activist by Israeli security forces in October 2000, a documentary film (One Family in Gaza) documenting the killing of a 9-year old boy by an Israeli soldier during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in January 2009, and a book (I Am Troy Davis), documenting the story of the family of death row prisoner Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia in September 2011 despite a strong case of innocence. Through these case-studies, I will describe the methods I use both in working with the families, and in crafting the artistic pieces, and how the telling of their stories in these mediums is connected to a sense of justice.

As part of the purpose of justice is providing an official version of “the truth,” it becomes crucially important to find platforms on which to amplify people’s truths when the official narrative is in direct contrast with a family’s or community’s truth, or when there was never any process of discovery at all, or when there was no consequences for the violators.

In There Is A Field, we look at a case where the Israeli government admitted that the killing of the 17-year old protestor should not have happened, but no one was held accountable for the killing. The case was closed with no police officer undergoing prosecution. In One Family in Gaza, the Israeli government never opened an investigation, let alone achieve results, in the killing of a 9-year old Palestinian child. In I Am Troy Davis, the state’s narrative held that Troy, who continually maintained his innocence, had murdered a police officer in Savannah, GA and that by executing him, justice had been done.

The official versions of all three cases ended in an abysmal lack of formal justice.

Yet, through the book, the documentary film, and the play, an alternative record of the events, cases and stories is in the public domain. Though these alternative forms of justice by no means replaces the need for formal justice, they do give the families a platform on which to amplify their truths, and to insert those truths as part of public consciousness and in the wider discourse of those events.