Defining the Field and its Moral Challenge

Laurel E. Fletcher is Clinical Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, School of Law where she directs the International Human Rights Law Clinic. Fletcher is active in the areas of human rights, humanitarian law, international criminal justice, and transitional justice. As director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, she utilizes an interdisciplinary, problem-based approach to human rights research, advocacy, and policy. 

Colleen Murphy’s book “The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice,” offers firm intellectual footing to transitional justice, a field that suffers from contested assumptions about what underlies its essential goals and methods. The question is will the book succeed in inducing practitioners, policy makers, and scholars to adopt Murphy’s theory of transitional justice, a moral theory based on relational transformation? Such adoption would in turn lead to different approaches to transitional justice and challenge our current strategies.

The United Nations has legitimated and defined transitional justice as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.”[1] However, this broad definition tells us little about what specific outcomes these interventions are supposed to achieve: what is accountability, justice, or reconciliation? Moreover, what are the principles that should guide interventions, and how we can discern whether we are getting closer to a desired end state? These shortcomings are symptoms of a field plagued by under-theorization and no agreed-upon theoretical foundation on which to develop a transitional justice framework.

The lack of theoretical grounding can be traced, in part, to the manner in which transitional justice developed. The field grew as primarily a legal response to the political question of how new governments succeeding repressive or authoritarian regimes in Latin America and eastern Europe, respectively, should address the mass human rights violations committed by a prior regime? Geopolitical trends – the end of the Cold War – opened up space for human rights claims of accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims to be realized. In remarkably short order, “accountability” and “justice” displaced amnesty for dictators and warlords and became the politically hegemonic defaults for addressing mass abuses.

Leveraging transitional justice as a rallying cry, advocates across diverse and varied contexts demanded action. The frame of transitional justice united calls in Spain to provide justice to victims of political violence of the Franco regime with demands to initiate international prosecutions during active conflicts in the Great Lakes region with grassroots efforts to promote reconciliation for racial violence in the United States. When I served as an Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Transitional Justice, I was struck continually by the diverse cases that authors argued qualified as falling within the rubric of transitional justice. But the capacious UN definition of transitional justice, while globalizing the field and swelling its ranks of adherents, creates other problems. Can what we consider to be appropriate responses to egregious violations that arise in vastly different contexts be universalized in any meaningful way?

Murphy makes the case that the answer to this question is a qualified “yes.” Approaching the question from the perspective of moral philosophy, Murphy investigates how to evaluate the justness of the legal responses that societies make to respond to past violence and repression. She asserts that the question of whether a response is “just” is context-specific, and therefore in order to answer what justice looks like in transitional contexts, we must first know what demands transitional justice needs to satisfy. In transitional settings, according to Murphy, the central moral problem that justice must address is societal transformation. Societal relationships have been distorted by pervasive structural inequality and normalized collective wrongdoing. The correct moral response, she argues, is to reestablish reciprocal relations between state officials and citizens based on fulfilling mutual duties based on respect for human agency and rule of law. Thus, she argues, her positive moral theory of transitional justice is capable of guiding legal responses to achieve the unique justice requirement in transitions.

Because her moral theory is premised on the assumption that transitional justice is distinct from other forms of justice, Murphy develops a model to define the characteristics, and therefore the parameters, of transitional justice. She argues that transitional justice is a morally required response to situations in which four conditions are satisfied: (1) pervasive structural inequality exists; (2) normalized collective and political wrongdoing occurred; (3) there is serious existential uncertainty that a transition to democracy will occur; and (4) there is uncertainty about the trustworthiness of authority, e.g. the state is complicit in the wrongdoing. Under these conditions, Murphy argues that conventional theories of justice do not apply because retributive, restorative, and distributional theories of justice assume a background of a stable democracies. In stable democracies, the fundamental problem justice for a single murder must address is retribution for the perpetrator. In transitional justice, for example where the State committed genocide, the fundamental justice challenge is not delivering just desserts to wrongdoers but transforming society.

In developing her theory, Murphy addresses several preoccupations of transitional justice scholars and practitioners. First, there is a widespread understanding among adherents that transitional justice responses have to include retrospective and prospective dimensions. Accountability for perpetrators of widespread and severe wrongdoing is needed. But to stop abuses from recurring, societies need to solidify rule of law based on respect for human dignity. Second, there is an increasing awareness that structural marginalization and discrimination are drivers of mass violence and abuses and therefore post-conflict responses must include rectifying these problems. Third, there is an emerging consensus that transitional justice requires a holistic approach. No single mechanism or program will be sufficient to resolve the myriad harms caused by past episodes of widespread violations. Murphy unifies these concerns into a single moral frame in which legal interventions are directed at societal transformation.

In synthesizing these strands, Murphy makes an important contribution. By reframing justice away from legal accountability and toward the evaluation of legal responses based on their contributions to reforming political relationships, both between citizen and state and among citizens, she moves past the increasingly unsolvable debates that have preoccupied the field. These debates have focused loosely around two sets of questions. One set of questions concerns the appropriate balance among the legal duties to accountability, truth, reparations, and measures of non-recurrence. The second set of questions focuses on the value of any particular perspective—law, culture, power—to guide thinking about the goals, methods, and processes of transitional justice. Neither set of issues is settled and often there is cross-talk between these sets of questions, which confuses matters further.

In other words, Murphy’s argument switches our attention. If the central goal of transitional justice is to transform political relationships, we ask different questions of legal interventions than if we assume that the “justice” of transitional justice is equated with retributive justice criminal prosecutions, or restorative justice or truth telling, etc. If we focus on realizing the moral commitment to achieve relational transformation we might ask instead: What might it take to restore public trust, establish reciprocity and respect of individual agency between state officials and citizens? The answers might include legal measures but would likely extend far beyond.

Her case studies of Uganda and the former Yugoslavia illustrate the conceptual blind spots of conventional forms of transitional justice to promote societal transformation. Justice in these cases was not just because legal interventions did not attend to the moral relationship of the State to victims, and to perpetrators. But, as she admits, her moral theory supplies conceptual tools for considering and evaluating legal interventions rather than a blueprint for policy prescriptions.

Nevertheless, Murphy’s moral theory does have practical implications. It demarcates transitional justice cases from other cases of injustice that deserve attention. Not every case of mass violence that has been incompletely addressed in the eyes of victims can be converted into a case requiring “transitional justice” by claiming that society has failed to reckon with its past. For example, cases of historical injustice in stable democratic regimes (e.g. abuses under the Franco regime or slavery in the United States) fall outside of Murphy’s theory because the state is no longer “in transition.” Democracy is in place. There may still be lingering ‘injustices’ but these do not require societal transformation of relationships that Murphy’s moral theory requires.

Defining parameters for transitional justice is courageous because it narrows the field and the number of stakeholders invested in it. Another ramification is to discipline the enterprise of transitional justice by establishing parameters around what values are legitimate to pursue and through what methods. If Murphy’s theory is adopted, it would reorient the field away from questions of legal accountability and toward a focus on questions of the nature of moral relationships between citizens and the state.

Without a firm grounding in theory, transitional justice risks becoming a slogan to be manipulated by any number of actors. To defend the field, we need to know what is unique about society’s need to respond to mass violence and to refine what form of justice society is called up to do in those instances. Whether Murphy’s argument succeeds to reshape the field is unclear. However, her argument invites and deserves important debate. The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice deserves to be read.

[1] Report of the Secretary-General, The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies, 23 Aug. 2004, S/2004/616, Para 8.