Fragility, Authority and the Ethics of Transitions

Nir Eisikovits is an Associate Professor of Philosophy & Director of the Applied Ethics Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  His areas of expertise include Transitional Justice and Post War Reconstruction, Ethics of War, and International Relations Theory.

Colleen Murphy’s new book on transitional justice displays her signature blend of analytic rigor, elegant writing and empirically anchored theorizing. She follows up her excellent first book on political reconciliation with a volume on what it means to transform a war torn society so that it can, ultimately, become reconciled. The just pursuit of political transformation, Murphy argues, is at the heart of the idea of transitional justice. This is the best, most ambitious philosophical account of transitional justice that I have read. The book can be read with great utility by scholars and students seeking to understand the unique conditions and dilemmas surrounding transitions, as well as by policy makers interested in fashioning decent and legitimate transitional institutions.

In this essay I will focus on Murphy’s characterization of the unique circumstances holding during times of transitions. To develop a normative account of transitional justice one needs to understand the conditions that countries struggling to make a start after war or mass atrocity face. This is why Murphy’s book must begin with laying these conditions out.

Murphy tells us that transitional states are characterized by pervasive structural inequality – a legacy of the unjust social arrangements that held in the past. Consider, for example, how apartheid misshaped the life prospects of Blacks in South Africa and the resulting deep inequalities. These states also suffer from a normalization of collective and political wrongdoing (to stay with the South African example, consider that for many in that country the apartheid state – through its institutions and actors – was seen as an agent of harm). It made your husband disappear, it enlisted your sister to spy on her own people, it made you worry about the safety of your children.

Under such circumstances, Murphy reminds us, major crimes become normalized – an expected part of life’s fabric: “wrongdoing such as rape, disappearing or torture… becomes a basic fact of life for individuals in the midst of conflict … a fact around which individuals must orients their conduct” (55). The third feature of transitions is “serious existential uncertainty”: political instability, lack of resources and the lingering influence and power of the old guard make countries that try to emerge from prolonged violence especially fragile. We just don’t know if they will make it through and many of them don’t, or at least fail to make it through as democracies (consider Egypt’s post Arab Spring turmoil, or even the authoritarian version of Rwanda that emerged under Kagame). Finally, there is fundamental uncertainty about authority: does a transitional regime have the political, legal and moral authority to “rule and enforce rules?” (72) and does it have the authority to address past wrongs and work towards social transformation – especially if those wrongs were legal at the time of commission and if the new regime is not completely purged of those who were influential in the past?

I would like to further flesh out some of these conditions – especially the last two – and suggest some implications for political transitions. The fundamental uncertainty about authority and political fragility attendant to transitions are exacerbated by a lack of political traditions and the lack of a shared political history and identity. In settled democracies both leaders and citizens can appeal to a store of past experiences and some settled views or traditions about how to deal with extreme circumstances. These traditions can provide guidance and a background against which to judge current conduct, even when it is extreme or unprecedented (in fact, the very ability to agree that the conduct of an official is unprecedented and completely strays from widely accepted traditions can buttress existing institutions and put current turmoil in context).

A fledgling United States considering John Adams’ prolonged absences from the capital and his temper tantrums in a very different way from a modern United States assessing President Trump’s behavior. In the intervening two and a half centuries the country gradually developed a set of expectations and traditions about how its leader should act. An observer of Adams could legitimately ask whether that was what a president was supposed to do (ironically, as Vice President, Adams who was very aware of the fragility of the institutions of the new republic and tried to invest the presidency with grandeur and gravitas by proposing various titles by which the president should be known. His efforts were unappreciated, ultimately earning him the moniker “his rotundity”). An observer of President Trump’s antics has an answer to that question. Stated differently, it is easier for settled democracies to get through periods of significant political fragility. What makes these hardships less existentially frightening in settled polities is the existence of political traditions, shared history, some sense, if you will, of political identity, that can put threats in context (“we’ve been through worse…” “don’t panic – remember how many people supported Nixon in the first few months after his maleficence was made public …” “we have a self correcting political system” and so on).

Transitional polities, then, are precarious because, on the one hand, so much hangs on the success of their transitional processes and, on the other, they have little guidance and very few tools to successfully shepherd themselves through. Spain immediately after Franco was often steps away from falling back into a dictatorship. South Africa after the demise of apartheid was similarly close to the brink. And in each case these countries were pretty much flying blind – dependent on the political instincts of their leaders, international good will, the exhaustion of their citizens, and, frequently, dumb luck. Under these circumstances, one wonders how much we can expect, morally, from a process of political transformation. Murphy invokes a fascinating analogy to Just War Theory and its distinction between Jus ad Bellum (the justice of the decision to go to war) and Jus in Bello (the justice of the war’s conduct), to remind us that a transition is subject to two layers of moral judgment: first, whether it seeks to create the right institutions and instill the right principles and, second, on how it does these things. But the combination of political fragility and lack of clear lines of authority which Murphy describes, raise questions about whether transitions to democracy can really be pursued democratically and about the moral meaning of a failure to do so.

Spain’s transition was facilitated by a pacto del olvido or pact of forgetting – a refusal, for many decades, to talk about the horrors of the civil war and the crimes committed in its aftermath. South Africa’s transition was facilitated by the work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Both of these, in very different ways, were failures to live up to standards of the rule of law. The Spanish Pacto for the obvious reason that it completely sidelined the need of victims for public acknowledgement; the TRC because its hearings jettisoned basic tenets of the rule of law and because, to paraphrase Michael Ignatieff, it inaugurated South African democracy by letting a bunch of murderers get away with murder. And yet there are reasons to give both of these states a moral pass. Not a permanent pass; it is, of course, much more problematic to insist on silence in Spain now than it was in the 1970’s, and South Africa cannot continue to build its legal system on truth for amnesty arrangements. But given the extreme fragility, high stakes and lack of legal and political standards to guide action – we tend to view these “sins” of transition leniently. Murphy, even though she considers the different ways transitional policies can fail the “jus in bello” test, does not quite consistently consider the possibility that governments engaged in transitions are structurally set up to fail it or to seriously risk failing it.