The future of the field08.12.2020
This blog series examined the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, having asked challenging questions and having explored ways in which it might be relevant, or not, in our current global context. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intended to provoke debate within the field.
During the last year, I have had the opportunity to interview a small group of exceptionally interesting people involved in the interrelated fields of transitional justice, peacebuilding, and human rights. Although each of these interviews stands alone, many interviews shared common themes and critiques. At the highest level, interviewees seemed to agree that vast field of “dealing with the past” has been an exciting and vibrant area of work over recent decades, and that there have been real-world results that have improved the lives of people. Indeed, it might be fair to say that starting in the mid-1980s there has been a global paradigm shift in the ways in which societies are expected to deal with mass atrocity in the past. New lexicons have been populated with neologisms and freshly defined concepts (like “transitional justice” and “truth and reconciliation”) that have, in turn, appeared with urgency in conversations among activists, social leaders, scholars, practitioners, decisionmakers, students, and journalists around the world and led to significant new policies and practices.
This progress has, of course, also been imperfect and non-linear, with many setbacks, deviations, and miscalculations, some of which have led to learning and improvement, and some of which have led to embedded practices that are hard to dislodge. Earlier in this series, I referred to the “paradox of best practices”. As any field grows and matures, it builds a solid foundation of expertise and best practices. The new lexicons that develop have the unintended side effect of creating exclusionary spaces where experts inadvertently become gatekeepers for increasingly entrenched norms. Innovation – a hallmark of youthful fields – becomes more constrained.
Seven possible ways forward
How should transitional justice and related fields move into the future? Drawing on interviews, I would like to suggest the following: first, the field should embrace cultural approaches to dealing with the past to complement its long-standing tendency to focus on institutional, legal, and state-based solutions; what Nomfundo Mogapi called “the lawyerization of transitional justice”. This would mean, as Hasini Haputhanthri puts it, to “take people through a process of redefining or reflecting on themselves, changing their own perceptions … where people start to engage not just rationally and intellectually, but also emotionally, because that's what culture is”. A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence highlighting the importance of memorialization processes, is a positive step.
Second, and related, would be to adjust the field’s focus on tools, which has sometimes led to treating the “mechanisms” of transitional justice as institutional design questions divorced from the goals that they were meant to help reach. For example, to frame a question as “how should this truth commission be designed” is very different than to ask “what goals are we trying to reach, and what is the best way to reach them?”, and then determine the strategies and tools, perhaps entirely new and innovative ones, that are most suited to the goals.
Third, although the field has always been motivated by the idea of “Never Again!”, often referred to as non-recurrence, there has been inadequate attention paid to how to achieve this elusive goal. Related to the previous point, the discussion of non-recurrence has often focused on the institutional design of, for example, vetting procedures, and the broader (and harder) discussion of what non-recurrence really means has often been sidelined. As Pablo DeGreiff put it, “we have to go back to the fundamentals” and ask “what is the best way of promoting … non-recurrence” and develop deeper expertise in this area.
Fourth, it was clear from interviews that these fields should do more to highlight the importance of the construction of masculine identity. For example, speaking of Colombia, but relevant in many contexts, Alfonso Marrugo, a VivaVoz Fellow, believes that one of the biggest threats to peace comes from masculine identity that tends to equate male strength with violence, and that draws too heavily on tropes of machismo that dominate cultural life, from the media to schools to the home, coupled by a “hyper-feminization” of female identity.
Fifth, the field needs to grapple with complex historical dynamics that have resulted in massive human rights abuse and marginalization over long periods of time, such as structural racism and colonial legacies. In its earliest incarnation, transitional justice tended to focus on demarcated periods of “extraordinary” violence. But interviewees agreed that understanding and unpacking long-term patterns of violence, many of which begin long before and continue long after exceptional periods, can offer a great deal to the increasing demand for justice and redress for historical legacies.
Sixth, the field should focus more on social dialogue and public engagement with larger groups of the populations in which they work, and harness new technologies to accomplish this. One of the strongest critiques of truth commissions, for example, has been that their final reports tend to be massive published tomes that gather dust on library bookshelves instead of being used in ways that could truly help to change narratives and norms.
Finally, when fields like transitional justice first emerged, it is important to remember that they were linked to social movements and to robust activity among nongovernmental organizations, such as human rights groups. As an old but useful publication explains, for example, successful truth commissions require “an essential relationship” with existing human rights NGOs that can provide them with documentation and guidance. Today’s initiatives should also look to civil society for direction, inspiration, and support.
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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.
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?