What future for transitional justice? Radical critical reflections on the field


Louis Bickford

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.

As the field of Transitional Justice reaches middle age, it seems more relevant than ever. At the time of this writing, the world is in the midst of rapid and momentous change. Around the world, anti-racist protest movements are challenging the legacies of the past. Statues of old heroes are being questioned and torn down in many societies, including the American South, Belgium, and Mexico. Calls for reparations for historical injustice are abundant. Pointed demands for accountability for recent and past violence are forcing police forces and governments to respond. But if transitional justice is to play a role in facing these challenges, it may need to change and adapt. This blog series is an effort to address critical questions about that possible future.

The emergence of transitional justice 

The transitional justice field was born at the end of authoritarian rule in Argentina (1976-1983). Drawing on numerous historical antecedents, not least the postwar German experience, human rights activists and their allies in the new democratic government designed a set of strategies to hold accountable the moral authors of human rights abuse; to clarify the truth about what happened; to provide some form of reparation to victims; to propose reforms to prevent dictatorship in the future; and to honor victims by making sure they were remembered on the public memoryscape and in societal narratives. During the following decade, similar efforts emerged in many countries, including, at first, Chile, Uruguay, and South Africa, and then especially, but not only, among countries in the Global South, where activists sought to learn from each other, adapt to local conditions, and innovate accordingly, including in Cambodia, Canada, Peru, Liberia, Morocco, and Timor-Leste, among many others; as well as ongoing initiatives in Colombia, Gambia, and the former Yugoslavia. “Transitional justice” got off to a running start and quickly grew into a full-fledged and vibrant field.

Consolidation and professionalization of the field 

Indeed, today, more than 35 years after the Argentine transition to democracy, a google search for the term “transitional justice” produces almost 50 million results and a search on academia.edu, an aggregator of scholarly research worldwide, produces 107,000 articles. At a minimum, at least usd$96.7 Million worth of grants were made (in 2017) supporting NGOs working in this field. Students and scholars can obtain a Master’s Degree or even a PhD in Transitional Justice, and can publish their findings in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, a respected (and now-established) academic publication, not to mention in dozens of blogs or magazines. Scores, if not hundreds, of people working in government agencies and nonprofit organizations around the world have business cards with the words “transitional justice” printed on them. These are anecdotal indicators, but nonetheless they point to the growth and consolidation of a field that first appeared as a neologism in the 1990s and as a Wikipedia entry only in 2006.

Where to go from there?

What have we learned from over three decades of transitional justice practice? And, how might we apply these lessons to the world today? What would a “radical-critical” approach to the field look like, especially if it is aimed at strengthening peacebuilding, development, and rights-respecting cultures?

This blog series attempts to wrestle with these questions and others, such as: can transitional justice help societies confront long-standing historical legacies, such as colonialism and slavery? How can the field attract fresh perspectives and new disciplinary approaches, as well as appeal to young people, many of whom are often focused on current issues? Has the field paid sufficient attention to questions of identity, including race, gender, and sexual orientation? Were there opportunities missed over the last few decades that should be rectified now?

The methodology for the series was simple: between March 6th, 2020, and the end of June, I engaged in a small set of interviews with both seasoned experts in the field as well as emerging leaders and people working in related fields. In general, it is a retrospective exercise critically examining the field and seeking to draw inferences about its relevance today. It makes no claim to be exhaustive or definitive, but I hope that this blog series will nonetheless be useful to practitioners, scholars, students, and others who are interested in transitional justice.

Importantly, we welcome your reactions and invite a conversation with the readers. We hope that you will contribute your thoughts and reactions to each blog post as it is published, including this one.

Please send us your feedback and opinions to: tj@frient.de


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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?

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