Research Western

Joanna Quinn: The Search for Truth

As a graduate student, an obscure footnote set political science professor Joanna Quinn on a year-and-a-half search for a copy of a never-disseminated Uganda Truth Commission report documenting violent regimes that had ruled the country since the 1960s.

The quest carried her to a bug-filled closet at Makerere University in Kampala, where she found – shunted onto a water heater – the original documents used to compile the Truth Commission. At a subsequent meeting with a human rights organization, she also came across a full stack of the reports, sitting unopened on a shelf.

Quinn says these dusty copies serve as a metaphor for the Truth Commission itself, noting that it failed in part because nothing was ever done with it.

“Truth Commissions should lead to acknowledgement of what has happened in the past so citizens can begin to put together a common account of their history and rebuild trust,” she says. “Once details are out in the open, there’s often less fear and people can begin to participate in civil society.”

Working at the grassroots level, Quinn helps guide policy that is informed by research into affected, and often vulnerable, parties, including community leaders, students and women’s groups. In countries that are often unable or unwilling to properly investigate their pasts, the truth is critical in transforming societies.

Given that people are often reluctant to speak of their experiences, which in many cases include rape, Quinn first sets out to build trust. “I feel tremendous responsibility to the communities, as they have entrusted me with their stories and details of atrocities committed against them,” she says. “I feel I need to make good with this information.”

The authenticity of the first-hand material Quinn gleans carries weight with high-level officials with whom she works to develop policies that help countries rebuild following conflict. “When I speak with policy makers, the stories are more real because people have sacrificed to meet with me,” she says.

Quinn is also Director of Western’s Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to research strengths in international and intercultural relations, government and public policy, social change, social justice and equity.

She has also been asked to lead the formation of the University’s new Africa Institute, which will attempt to increase cross-sectoral research collaborations for the more than 40 researchers across campus conducting research on the continent.

“If something is happening in Kenya, for example, we’ll have 5-6 people and can find ways to bring others together to capitalize on opportunities,” says Quinn. “Instead of working alone, we want to bring in people who can both support us and attract others.”

In the process, she hopes the nascent institute will help build relationships, both here at Western and with colleagues in Africa, to provide learning opportunities, student exchanges, seminars and lectures that will lead to improvements around the world.

“The Africa Institute will be a great vehicle for helping me repay what people have trusted me with the past 12 years,” Quinn says.

For more, please visit: The Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction