Appraising Transitional Justice Through the Just War Theory Analogue

Steven R. Ratner is Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research focus on public international law and on a range of challenges facing governments and international institutions since the Cold War, including territorial disputes, counter-terrorism strategies, ethnic conflict, state and corporate duties regarding foreign investment, and accountability for human rights violations.

Colleen Murphy’s The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice offers a significant addition to our understanding of transitional justice (TJ) in at least three ways.

First, Murphy deserves accolades for traversing numerous disciplinary divides in her approach to TJ. For scholars seeking to build more bridges between international law and philosophy, this books offers an excellent way as to how it can be done. Although legal scholarship on TJ has recognized many of the goals that Murphy defends, lawyers will benefit from the careful way in which she discusses trade-offs and priorities. Philosophers, on the other hand, should learn the importance of direct engagement with the key legal sources, including the workings of several TJ mechanisms.

Second, Murphy’s explanation of the justice of TJ moves us beyond both political and legal ways of thinking about TJ. Students of politics tend to think about TJ in terms of its success or failure for the particular country, with different measurements of those terms. Lawyers take the “justice” in TJ to mean that the starting point must be criminal justice, although they realize that TJ must encompass other goals like truth, acknowledgment, reparations, and measures for non-recurrence. They also tend to zero in on the scope of a state’s duties under international law (e.g., are amnesties allowed? Is there a right to the truth?)

Murphy helps us see that TJ is a matter of justice as philosophers understand that concept. She also emphasizes the necessity of defining clearly the subject matter of justice – that the justice of one thing (e.g., the basic structure of a liberal state) is quite different from the justice of something else (e.g., a TJ course of action taken by a state). Chapter 1 thus offers up the criteria of a TJ situation, so we know why the justice of that thing is worthy of inquiry. The four criteria that she offers seem to encompass the real-world cases that we ordinarily think of as concerning TJ and to raise morally important questions.

Third, and the focus of my comment, Murphy adopts an original methodological hook for analyzing the justice of a state’s TJ choices, namely to examine separately the just goals of TJ and the just means of carrying it out. Her analogy is to the two branches of just war theory (and the of law of war as well), namely the jus ad bellum (JAB) and the jus in bello (JIB). She thus develops what she calls the jus ad bellum analogue (JABA) and the jus in bello analogue (JIBA). This bifurcation of justice has the potential to provide a new level of clarity in our thinking, as we accept the need to look at two aspects of the process and not merely one.

At the same time, the JABA/JIBA approach raises some new conceptual questions. First, within the JABA itself, although the goal of social transformation (ST) – which she equates with relational transformation (RT) – is morally compelling, is that goal the only — or the principally — just goal for TJ? To return to the legal paradigm, in the case of the JAB, we can say that the only legally defensible reasons for a state to use force against another state are self-defense, authorization from the Security Council, and, on some accounts, humanitarian intervention. It is a necessary and sufficient condition of JAB legality that the state action be based on one of these three grounds. But does ST/RT meet the necessary/sufficient test? Though Murphy shows that ST through RT can respond to the four unique moral problems of a TJ situation, it is not clear if ST is the best or only means to address those problems. And even if it is the best or only method, why does that make it just in the same sense that JAB tells us the necessary and sufficient conditions for a just (or legal) war?

Second, and relatedly, because many TJ situations arise after prolonged violence in a country (not just “normalized and collective wrongdoing”), one wonders what role in the JABA is played by solidification of domestic peace. The serious existential uncertainty that helps define a situation needing TJ can extend to whether the peace will even hold. Murphy points out (p.111) that stability has its own value, as people still need to live their lives, with school, businesses, marriages, and ordinary living continuing. Yet those seem to take a back seat to ST.

Certainly, elites in a transitional situation can use the canard of solidification of the peace as a way to avoid any serious ST. I’ve witnessed this myself when I served on two UN accountability panels, for Cambodia and Sri Lanka, where the triumphalist elites running those countries each insisted that trials, or even investigations, of international crimes would re-ignite civil wars (by the Khmer Rouge and the LTTE, respectively) that were clearly over. But certainly it seems morally compelling goal of TJ to ensure that peace is maintained in those situations where it might be precarious. ST via RT can provide a way to long-term domestic peace, but it is not at all clear that it can provide short-term peace. Transformation may have to be put on hold to placate the losers or those with the ability to upset the transition.

Third, the JABA/JIBA tool can give rise to some new questions regarding a just TJ. International law doctrine generally holds that JAB and JIB operate independently. Under the so-called “separation thesis,” the legality of going to war is not affected by how it is carried out, and vice-versa. In particular, a state that obeys the rules of war (JIB) cannot be relieved of its liability for an aggressive war (JAB); and states that use force for legally acceptable reasons (JAB) still must obey the rules of war (JIB), even against aggressors. This principle explains the practice of the International Committee of the Red Cross of not commenting on the underlying legality of a war, as it insists that all parties must comply with the JIB.

Yet JAB and JIB are not actually completely independent. After states banned most uses of force in Article 2(4) of the Charter, states adjusted the JIB in the 1949 Geneva Conventions to make clear that territory annexed by the occupier was still legally occupied. And as most states began to accept that anti-colonial wars were lawful, they changed the jus in bello in the 1977 Additional Protocol I to state that anti-colonial fighters who did not resemble traditional soldiers would also receive most of the privileges of combatantcy and not be treated as illegal fighters. (See Addition Protocol I, arts. 4, 44). So it turns out that the legality of the recourse to force can affect the legality of the conduct of the war.

In Murphy’s use of the JIBA/JABA model, the thrust of her Chapter 4 seems based on the separation thesis – that we judge the justice of the manner of a transition independently of its goals. She thus usefully says TJ responses must be “fitting or apt” (p. 163), which turns on four features (pp. 163-72). First, they must address six moral imperatives, i.e., they must respond to the perpetrators by (1) repudiating their wrongs and (2) holding them accountable; they must respond to the victims by (3) acknowledging the wrongs against them, (4) recognizing their status as victims, and (5) providing reparation; and they must respond to both by (6) promoting nonrecurrence. These correspond to goals widely accepted by practitioners of TJ in international organizations and NGOs.  Second, they must reflect the relations among the relevant actors. Third, they must reflect the gravity of the offense. And fourth, they must reflect cultural expectations. She goes on to show, through good examples, how, different institutional responses – e.g., the ICTY and the Ugandan Amnesty Commission – did not “fit” based on those criteria. And she astutely observes the importance for states of “active coordination” by domestic and international actors to make sure that each TJ mechanism is considered in connection with the others, rather than in isolation.

Yet I wonder whether, like the law, strict separation does not offer a complete description of the two aspects of justice. In particular, is there a connection between the JIBA requirements and the JABA requirement? It would be nice to explore how each of the imperatives regarding perpetrators and victims advances ST/RT or how the imperatives might change if the goals were different from ST/RT. I agree with her inclination, which she justifies in the conclusion, not to ask how “any specific kind of response” (p. 198) actually contributes to ST, but it would help to know how the six imperatives (which are one level up in generality) do so.

Second, in thinking about the six moral imperatives for TJ responses, one might ask why are they not also – or instead – part of the JABA, i.e., the just goals of a transition? International organizations like the UN and other scholars of TJ generally describe those six imperatives as part of the end, in part because ST/RT sounds too academic as well as idealistic, but also because they see those imperatives as part of the goals of TJ. So are these six imperatives intrinsically valuable, regardless of their actual effect on ST/RT? Intrinsically valuable but also instrumentally valuable?

Murphy ends with an important plea for a holistic view of justice, one sensitive to the JABA and all the many elements of the JIBA. I certainly agree, although maybe the international organizations have it right by having us consider justice only from the latter perspective. If a state finds the proper mechanisms that meet the six moral goals in a way that that also respects the other three JIBA criteria, does it matter whether its goal is ST/RT or something else? One could consider that a great success and also be confident that societal transformation would follow on its own.   At the same time, by justifying ST/RT as the ultimate long-term just solution to the unique problems of TJ, Murphy has helped us see where the state eventually needs to go.