The crisis of transitional justice: an opportunity for history work


Constantin Goschler

The field of transitional justice has changed dramatically since it first emerged almost three decades ago. Described even in its early days as a soon-to-be irreversible global trend, it reached its peak at the end of the Cold War: on every continent, dictatorships were toppling like dominoes and liberal democracy appeared, for a time, to be on an unstoppable forward march. But times have changed and the now institutionalised concept of transitional justice is encountering stiff resistance.

Transitional justice has lost its normative frame of reference

The concept of transitional justice describes, on the one hand, a process that leads from dictatorship to democracy and, on the other, a mechanism that is to facilitate this process. Normatively, both are strongly associated with the concept of “the West” that became an apparently fixed constant in international relations after 1945. In its original meaning, the concept aimed, in a sense, to include countries outside the “West” in its normative framework.

Since the change of course under the current US government, however, there has been much lamenting about the end of “the West” that we know and often loved. In that sense, the concept of transitional justice has lost its normative frame of reference – one which also provided the framework for shared historical narratives.

Nationalist historical narratives: a threat to transitional justice

There is a second dynamic of change which is highly relevant to the concept of transitional justice and which is based on a cosmopolitan understanding of politics. This understanding aims to counterbalance historical conflicts by encouraging conflict parties to sign up to shared universal norms. This understanding of history was particularly evident in the integration efforts made by the EU’s new Eastern European member states after the end of the Cold War.

In many European societies, however, nationalist historical narratives are once again in the ascendant. This is, not least, a reaction to globalisation and the division that it has opened up between winners and losers. This division is often interpreted as a conflict between cosmopolitan elites and local populations. The concept of transitional justice itself is thus at risk of being viewed as a cosmopolitan elitist project that ignores local traditions and interests.

A new victim figure: the survivor

This is accompanied by the supposed end of the post-heroic age. Closely associated with this is the end of the temporary ascendancy of the victim as a key prerequisite for the concept of transitional justice. Previously, the figure of the victim of senseless violence had replaced the victim who sacrificed themselves for the greater good, but now a new figure has entered the stage: the survivor, whose survival no longer triggers feelings of guilt – which we know was experienced by Holocaust survivors, for example. Rather, survival per se is seen as evidence of a special quality: the survivor embodies the victory over the violence directed against them.

Transitional justice thrives on the tension between the image of a violent past and a peaceful future. The survivor, by contrast, is an expression of a collective expectation that violence will recur. Instead of empathy with victims, therefore, what emerges is the imperative of resilience, which is closely associated with societies’ vulnerability. The horizon of collective expectation appears to have darkened somewhat, and this undermines the implicit historical optimism embedded in the concept of transitional justice. It is no coincidence that as Eckart Conze points out, the concept of “security” has largely usurped the concept of “peace” in international politics over the past few decades.

Credibly asserting and justifying one’s own values

In light of this crisis diagnosis for transitional justice, what are the practical implications for a policy that sees dealing with the past as a possible means to overcome the impacts of violent conflict and prevent future violence?

First, we should be rigorous in breaking with the teleological grounding of transitional justice. This arises from the implicit expectation that the Western liberal model will be unstoppable and will assert itself on a global basis. This certainly does not mean that we must abandon our values; on the contrary, it means that we should defend them with self-confidence. However, self-confidence also means that we can no longer tacitly rely on a model of global historical progress in which “the historyof the worldis none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom”, to quote Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, a state which Francis Fukuyama believed was reached with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other words, we must not only be aware of how to defend our values; we should also know how to justify them in the face of increasingly self-confident competition. That is no easy task.

But must we abandon the universality of human rights just as we break with teleology? No – for even a particularist understanding by no means requires us to cease believing in our own values – quite the contrary. Nevertheless, in the competition between divergent local concepts of legitimacy and our own human rights-based norms, much is likely to depend not only on the steadfastness of our principles but also, and above all, on the credibility with which we ourselves apply them. 

The problem of NGO frequent flyers

Secondly, we should deal critically with the fact that experts in the field of transitional justice and, not least, in history work are too self-referential. Instead of relying on discussions in commissions and specialist groups that meet behind closed doors, they must consistently seek to engage with the public in the countries and regions concerned. Of course, this has already been attempted. However, this gives rise to the “NGO frequent flyers” phenomenon that political scientist Nicholas R. Micinski has described: the emergence of a group of NGO activists, always the same individuals, who are meant to represent local interests and voices but instead often form the core of a new cosmopolitan elite. Instead of relying mainly on a “professional” group of local actors, ways must be sought to achieve broader participation.

Thirdly, this impacts on the specific forms of dealing with the past, which – alongside retributive and restorative justice – is emerging as an increasingly important aspect of transitional justice endeavours. The attempt by experts to broker historical narratives through dialogue certainly has its merits. It is an attempt to overcome antagonistic historical narratives and myths, to defuse old conflicts and prevent new ones. Sadly, however, these negotiations seldom go beyond communication among experts. The German Government should therefore develop more promising entry points by making rigorous efforts to involve the public at the local level, not only as an audience but also as producers of historical meaning.

Turning a crisis into an opportunity

Transitional justice should therefore engage more strongly with public history, which focuses intensively on the relations between history experts and laypersons with an interest in historical culture. The basis for this is the recognition that views of history are produced not only by professional historians but by many other actors as well. Together with public history, transitional justice could identify viable answers to the following key question: how can antagonistic views of history be addressed so that individuals and groups with burdensome pasts can live together without violent conflicts erupting in future?

What the past has shown us is that it is useful to start at the level of individual and family experiences and narratives. The German Government should therefore focus less on attempting to create new historical master narratives and instead look at where history becomes reality. History work ultimately means learning to listen. A possible example is the Kosovo Oral History Initiative, established in 2012. It responded to the failure of attempts by transitional justice professionals and historians to initiate a reconciliation process in post-conflict Kosovo through dealing with the past. Instead, this initiative has focused on intervening directly in the complex production of historical narratives and meanings through oral history interviews with the local Kosovar and Serb communities. According to Anna Di Lellio, one of the project’s founders, this allows a process of moving beyond the establishment of guilt and supplying critical additions to existing narratives. The current crisis of transitional justice could thus prove to be an opportunity for history work.

First published in PeaceLab Blog, 29 October 2018


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Constantin Goschler is Professor of Contemporary History and Dean of the Faculty of History at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

Issue: Diversity/Dialogue

a. Peacebuilding requires the integration of conflicting narratives. To that end, these narratives must be transformed/made “fit for peace”. How can this be achieved?
b. How can diverse perspectives be made visible in social discourse – or in a museum? What is the connecting element in this diversity? How can relativism and arbitrariness be excluded?

Issue: Digital/Public History

 a. Which opportunities are opened up by the digitalisation of memory? What can be done to minimise risks and avert hazards?
b. How can knowledge and narratives about the past reach the general public?