Help instigate processes, be a catalyst, not promise the sky. A plea for realistic expectations


Louis Bickford

Pablo de Greiff, human rights scholar and activist, was the first UN Special Rapporteur on Transitional Justice. He thinks it important to avoid both cynicism and naive romanticism about social change, and to think about human rights not simply as (ex post) redress mechanisms, but also as (ex ante) anti-grievance measures.

Pablo DeGreiff and I started working at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) on the same day in late August 2001. Although we did not know each other before then, we had both been working in the transitional justice field, even if we did not necessarily use that term to describe our work, for a number of years. He had been a tenured professor of Philosophy teaching Ethics and Political Theory at the State University of New York and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, among other distinguished roles, and I had been at the University of Wisconsin managing a project on how societies confront legacies of authoritarianism. When we heard about the founding of the ICTJ, we were both intrigued by the creation of a new organization that would help build a nascent field and, on that day in August, we found ourselves on the 33rd floor of a Lower Manhattan Art Deco skyscraper with a small group of other colleagues as among the first employees in the new offices of this new institution. Pablo was the Director of Research and believed that producing serious scholarly and applied research into this new field was a vital component of our organizational mission. I was the Director of Capacity-Building and Networking. Later, Pablo would become the first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

New transitional justice measures in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement 

I interviewed Pablo twice for this project, once on March 6th and a second time on July 2nd. Between those two dates, the world seemed to have changed dramatically as the Covid-19 pandemic raged and social protest exploded after the murder of George Floyd on May 25th. I asked Pablo about these seismic shifts, and how transitional justice might be relevant today. Pablo sees the emergence of racial justice campaigns, as “a very positive outcome of a set of tragic situations”, although “they are not isolated events”. And he reports that he has seen a “number of transitional justice-related proposals that are taking place, even in the U.S.A.: a series of commissions, both specialized and local, concerning police-citizen relationships”. He also is encouraged by a robust set of discussions about reparations, including reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as important symbolic gestures, and we discussed the current fascination among protesters and public officials (often on the municipal level) about the public landscape of collective memory, particularly the reevaluation of statues and monuments and, in many cases, the intense desire to remove them. “When you think about the fact that the day before yesterday, Mississippi changed its flag, you come to realize how far things have come”. He adds, “I have to say in this respect, I'm much more optimistic that there have been demonstrations, in all states in this country. There are states in which the African American population is below 1%. And nevertheless, there have been demonstrations there”.

Putting recognition into practice

For Pablo, all of these ongoing activities are “a very powerful illustration of a need for recognition, that is experienced in every case that I know of”. This may be especially true of the widespread call in many protests, to “say their names”, which insists on publicly recognizing the people of color in the United States—including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and many others—who have been unjustly killed by police. Pablo argues that “the creation of forums where some of these discussions can take place, is incredibly important”. He sees an underlying need “ to establish a forum for discussions of the sort” such as, potentially, about “this thing called a truth commission, that other countries have implemented”. In terms of transitional justice, then, the current moment is steeped in “great potential … as an opportunity to carry out an organized discussion, that provides among other things, recognition, in a way that people are clearly calling for, not just in ‘Say Their Names”, but in the explicit discussions about ‘why is it that we have been saying these things for ages, and no one has been willing to listen?’".

The need for realistic expectations

But Pablo’s optimism about the relevance of transitional justice at the current moment also comes with a bit of caution based on comparative experience. It is important, he says, for practitioners and others who look to transitional justice to recognize its limitations. It can not solve everything. He hopes that the field of transitional justice, “if it is mature enough”, will not “promise the sky” but that it can “help instigate organized processes. But it would be of course, a huge mistake” for transitional justice practitioners to make the claim that “it will solve racial relations in the United States or elsewhere. If it is mature enough to recognize both its potential, and its limitations, to think of itself … more as a catalyst, more as a process than as a set of quick tools that produce equally quick results”, it can make a huge contribution.

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Pablo de Greiff

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?

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Louis Bickford, CEO,

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.

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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