Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Radical critical blog series

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.

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Racial justice, historical legacies, and truth commissions

The relevance of transitional justice for the ongoing racial justice movements
25. November 2020
A view of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a national memorial to commemorate the victims of lynching in the United States. Photo: Wellesenterprises/iStock.

This blog series examined the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, having asked, for example, how transitional justice might be relevant for the ongoing racial justice movements in the world. Interviewees agreed that the field has a lot to offer at this historical moment of transformation, but that the field also needs some healthy self-reflection

In interviews for this blog series, I asked how transitional justice might be relevant for the ongoing racial justice movements in the world. Interviewees agreed that the field has a lot to offer at this historical moment of transformation, but that the field also needs some healthy self-reflection.

Truth commissions are an example. The first wave of truth commissions emerged in response to the autocratic penchant for obfuscation and lies. Family members of victims, for example, sought to know the truth about loved ones who had been forcibly “disappeared” in Argentina and Chile, only to be met with stonewalling, denial, silence, or blatant lying by the authorities. The cry for “truth” emerged from the pain, confusion, and deep injustice that was caused by the absence of truth. 

Efforts to confront deep-rooted racism and historical patterns of injustice also confront lies, but their challenge is arguably different. For example, in the United States, where calls for a truth commission to confront the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade emerge regularly including in the US Congress, there are 400 years of history to be grappled with, with complex and multilayered impacts on the entire population, and especially at least 37.5 million African-Americans. In the US, truth-telling is also tied directly to reparations. In Europe, legacies of colonialism, including ongoing marginalization and racism, have created demands for truth-telling and reparations that have their own complex international dynamics, such as the history of Germany’s involvement in Namibia or the role of Belgium in the Congo. The following are some factors that might set these initiatives apart from earlier experiences.

Commission methodologies

Earlier truth commissions have often focused on the testimonies of victims, witnesses, survivors, and family members of victims. Given that the identified victim class tended to be relatively small (in the case of Peru, for example, over 60,000 victims were identified, in a country with a population of about 30 million) and often still alive (and able to give testimony about violence), truth commissions had a relatively straightforward methodological path. While it will always be important to gather testimonials, new truth commissions will probably need to shift methodologies in ways that look at deep historical trends and layered arrays of victimization. In the case of racial justice, for example, this might mean more historians, archivists, and historical sociologists, as well as access to complex research sites, like slave grave sites and institutional records of government and businesses.

Official truth commissions and unofficial initiatives

Although formal, official, state-sanctioned truth commissions have tended towards similar structures, facilitated by the cross-national sharing of models and mechanisms, a plethora of diverse civil society initiatives and “Unofficial Truth Projects” have emerged. For example, certain museums and sites of conscience, oral history projects, social movement websites, libraries, and human rights organizations can all be seen as forms of unofficial truth-telling. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, for example, had only a dozen members in 1999 and today has over 300 members in 65 countries. The founder of the Legacy Museum in the United States, Bryan Stevenson, has frequently emphasized the link between the museum and truth-telling and reconciliation. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba is an ongoing institutional component of the Canadian commission (2008-2015). Future truth commissions will want to learn from these kinds of efforts, partner with them, and co-create new forms of truth-telling and commission follow-up. 

Linking truth commissions with large-scale reparations

Truth commissions have a mixed record in terms of linking with reparations. Arguably the most successful cases have contributed to a viable set of specific reparations policies with a defined and comparatively small set of victims. As mentioned above, in the US or European cases, the possible number of victims could be defined as millions of people. And clarifying both the harm experienced by those victims and the concomitant compensation for that harm is far from straightforward. Truth-telling efforts that are explicitly linked to clarifying reparations policies will need to develop an entirely different skill-set and partnerships, such as with organizations like National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC). 

The role of technology and communications in truth-telling

Earlier truth commissions did not have access to the technological resources and tools that are now available. These tools could vastly change the scale of operations of a truth commission, allowing it to reach and engage millions of people in a way that was previously unimaginable. Machine learning could provide new ways of analyzing data; smartphones and web-based platforms, as well as communication apps like WhatsApp and voice memos, can provide access to a truth commission’s work in new ways; and distribution channels like social media, including new and emerging media, can provide entirely new forms of dialogue that take commissions beyond truth-“telling” towards the harder challenge of  truth-“listening”. While truth commissions have developed powerful methods for “seeking” and “telling” the truth, they have been less successful at expanding and shifting long-established and pernicious societal narratives about history and race. Social movements, such as the movement for Black lives in the United States and movements to remove offensive statues and monuments, can certainly play this role, and commissions can complement those efforts by surfacing and sharing unheard voices and stories that should be integrated into national or local narratives. But to do so also requires attention to how to engage broader audiences and how to promote social dialogue. 

As Martin Abregu mentioned in an interview for this series, updated versions of truth-seeking, truth-telling, and truth-listening represent “a conversation that is probably more important than ever” in today’s context, as we seek to build “new forms of identity” and, as Nomfundo Mogapi, also in this series, says, “a changing of culture” in which societies transform the “social contract, in terms of what matters, what binds them together, what divides them together” in ways that celebrate human rights.

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