Round up — closing courts, building fences and sentencing ‘the book keeper of Auschwitz’

I currently busy writing on three different projects: an introduction to a special issue of the journal Geoforum with the brilliant collaborators Fiona McConnell and Alice Wilson on the topic ‘Producing Legitimacy’, comprising a set of studies of the strategies of unrecognised states to try and achieve legitimacy; a special issue (under review at a journal, won’t mention which in case it doesn’t come off) entitled ‘Revisiting Civil Society’ with the equally brilliant Lynn Staeheli and Sandy Marshall, while finally trying to move forward on the book Legal Lives, based on the establishment of the war crimes chamber within the Court of Bosnia. These are all fun and, in some ways, inform each other (sometimes rather tangentially) but it does mean that I haven’t been writing the blog (though I will blog on each of these at points in the future). But while I have been in writing exile there have been a series of interesting news stories that I should mention to follow up at a later date:

1) The UK government is looking to close ‘more than 120 courts’ as part of a cost saving measure and to remove spare capacity in the courts system. To compensate, more use will be made of video technologies, thereby reducing the need to attend courts in person (and could allow other civic buildings to double as court rooms). From the perspective of work studying legal architecture, for example Linda Mulcahy‘s superb work on the legal and social effects of court buildings, this move underplays the symbolic role played by court rooms in asserting a particular legal regime. I always come back to Mulcahy’s observation that Stonehenge, a neolithic stone circle in Wiltshire, UK, was known in Cornish dialect as Merddin Embys: the ‘fence of judgement’, underscoring the point that legal judgement was public, prominent and symbolically important to the preservation of order. Of course, with new technologies it may be that access to justice and its symbolic significance can be achieved in different ways.

2) In a different register of legal geography: evidence of the increasing pace of border securitisation in Hungary, whose government commenced with the construction of a security fence running along the border with Serbia. As this article indicates, the fence is designed to cut off one of the main overland migration routes to north west Europe (it probably means many more passing through Slavonia in Eastern Croatia). It is another material reminder of Wendy Brown‘s point that we are living in an unprecedented era of walling: constructing barriers at the borders of states to prevent movement (of some). A clear example of the ‘fortress Europe’ approach to non-Schengen area migration, it is also a reflection of Serbia’s distance from European membership and a reminder of the illusory nature of much of the language of inclusivity and integration that stalks policy initiatives such as the European Neighbourhood Policy.

3) The completion of the trial of Oskar Groening, labelled in the media as the ‘Book keeper of Auschwitz’ for his role as a clerk in camp was a reminder of the complex temporality of transitional justice processes. While psychologists speak of ‘closure’ it is clear that a transitional justice process never ends, and the possibility for legal redress and exerting a sense of accountability for the past always remains open, and in the present it often remains open in multiple legal institutions (within and beyond the state). The problem is that in contexts recovering from violent and divisive conflict, many people understandably want a clear end point to the legal process, either since it is psychologically wearing to be reminded of the past, or the legal process seems futile or it is simply too expensive a commitment to continue to investigate and try crimes of the past (all three of these sentiments have been evident at different times in the research in Bosnia and Herzegovina). But in some ways the open ended nature of transitional justice could also be thought of as a strength, emphasising that the possibility of legal proceedings is always open and a society never ‘heals’ in an mechanistic way but rather reinvents itself through knowledge of past atrocities.

 Alex Jeffrey, July 2015

[The photo has nothing to do with the stories but is a hastily-shot image of the beautiful Fellows Garden at Clare College Cambridge]

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