What Would Satisfy Us? - Taking Stock of Critical Approaches to Transitional Justice


Dustin N. Sharp

Critique of transitional justice has become commonplace – but what should it be measured against? Dustin N. Sharp from San Diego (author of Rethinking Transitional Justice for the Twenty-First Century) would not claim to be a radical critic.In a recent article in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, he gives a clear description of the continuum of possible critiques of transitional justice – without questioning the concept per se. He concludes that, while there is no lack of critical scholarship, there needs to be more engagement with the ‘how to implement’.

In recent years, a distinct critical turn in transitional justice scholarship has emerged. Sharp outlines two constellations:

  1. “The first constellation relates to the power dynamics of transitional justice ideology and practice. Typical concerns here relate to the relationship between the modalities of paradigmatic transitional justice and nonwestern, local, or indigenous traditions of justice; the processes and locus of agency associated with paradigmatic transitional justice (for example, top down v. bottom up; locally owned v. imposed from ‘the outside’); and the technocratic idiom of paradigmatic transitional justice, which tends to de-politicize and obfuscate highly contestable choices, while shifting the balance of power in favor of international preferences.
  2. A second constellation of critical concerns relates to the relatively narrow justice horizon of paradigmatic transitional justice as contrasted with the broader horizon of social justice. Typical concerns here relate to whether transitional justice does too little to disturb the postconflict status quo, treating symptoms rather than causes; and whether more should be done to address additional forms of violence beyond the narrow (if egregious) band of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law with which paradigmatic transitional justice has been most preoccupied. Thus, critics have argued that the scope of transitional justice should be expanded to address economic violence, structural violence, cultural violence, everyday violence, and a broader array of gender-based harms.

A common thread underlying both constellations of critique is a concern that paradigmatic transitional justice is circumscribed by a liberal-legalist ideology and teleology while imagining that it represents a neutral framing of both problems and solutions, and that this ideology is being exported from core to periphery in ways akin to neoimperialism.”

Sharp outlines a continuum of opportunities for transitional justice

Status quo

  • Forgive and forget, impunity for all forms of past violence


Paradigmatic TJ

  • Legal and atrocity justice for politically motivated physical violence and violations of civil and political rights more generally
  • Emphasis on the state and institutions

Thinner justice



Shorter term



Gross violence

democratic TJ


  • Justice for perpetrators of both physical violence and economic violence, including violations of economic and social rights and economic crimes
  • Emphasis on both the state and community


Transformative TJ

  • Justice for physical, structural, economic, and everyday violence; more social justice than atrocity justice
  • Emphasis on the community level

Subtle violence



Longer term

Revolutionary TJ


  • Revolutionary people’s courts that pursue both direct perpetrators and indirect bene­­ficiaries of the previous regime, including bystanders
  • Emphasis on large-scale redistribution and the democratic control of the economy


Thicker justice


Sharp himself favours an “integrated critique”. Its goal is “to generate critical insights that are more policy relevant, contextually informed, and engaged with the question of how to proceed with the necessary changemaking than has often been the case in the past”.

International Journal of Transitional Justice, ijz018, https://doi.org/10.1093/ijtj/ijz018

Published: 14 August 2019

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Dustin N. Sharp

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?