Practical Reflections on Conceptual Foundations

David Tolbert was appointed president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in March of 2010. Previously he served as registrar (assistant secretary-general) of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and prior to that was assistant secretary-general and special expert to the United Nations secretary-general on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials.

Roger Duthie is Director of Research at ICTJ, where he has managed research projects examining how transitional justice relates to education, forced displacement, and development. His publications include Justice Mosaics: How Context Shapes Transitional Justice in Fractured Societies (2017, co-edited with Paul Seils); Transitional Justice and Education: Learning Peace (2016, co-edited with Clara Ramirez-Barat); Transitional Justice and Displacement (2012); and Transitional Justice and Development (2009, co-edited with Pablo de Greiff); as well as articles published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice and the International Human Rights Law Review. 

In The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice, Colleen Murphy develops a theoretical framework for understanding the conditions, objectives, and processes of transitional justice. It is a very interesting and useful contribution to the literature on transitional justice. The author’s approach is to initially take a step back from questions of transitional justice measures and processes (the focus of most practitioners) and pose more fundamental inquiries: Under what conditions do the need for transitional justice arise? What problem or issues is transitional justice addressing? How does it respond to that problem? In doing so, the book helps us to rethink how we—practitioners, interested parties, and scholars—can more coherently, effectively, and justly respond to past wrongdoing.

Murphy posits transitional justice as a singular or separate type of justice. She argues persuasively that transitional justice is not simply a refined version or combination of retributive, corrective, and distributive justice, but is a different kind of justice, which focuses on specific problems and offers normative guidance on how to respond to those problems. Central to Murphy’s understanding is the transitional nature of the context in which societies address wrongdoing, which she finds as necessary for defining transitional justice. In her view, it is not the achievement of transition that is needed, but rather the aspiration to end conflict and replace repression with democracy; at the same time, however, it is also Murphy’s view that not all cases commonly labeled “transitional justice” should in fact be included in the category. While positing democracy as the end goal of transitional justice is widely shared by victims and practitioners alike, this is often a long-term goal. Moreover, the content and understanding of democracy varies widely.

The book identifies four conditions or circumstances that are necessary to give rise to the specific problem that transitional justice is to address. The first condition is pervasive structural inequality, which refers to the illegitimacy of the institutional rules and norms shaping interaction among citizens and between citizens and officials. The second is normalized collective and political wrongdoing, in which violations of human rights have become basic facts of life through different forms such as centralized repression or symmetrical or unstructured violence. The third and fourth conditions are serious existential uncertainty, referring to the very unclear trajectory of a political society, and fundamental uncertainty about authority, or the standing of a political regime to rule and enforce rules.

There are two particularly important points about these conditions for the book’s argument. First, the different conditions affect each other: pervasive structural inequality, in particular, is empirically correlated and mutually reinforcing with normalized wrongdoing, and it is also necessary for existential uncertainty. “Particular incidents of violence are part of a broader pattern of interaction designed to entrench and reinforce pervasive structural inequality,” Murphy writes. “Such wrongdoing needs to be seen against the background of pervasive structural inequality, and as intended to reinforce and be justified by that inequality” (page 103). As she put is, “background injustice is the subject of transitional justice” (page 95). This means that it is not reform of institutions and norms that is needed, but transformation. Second, the uncertainty about the nature and direction of a political order highlights the importance of identifying how different factors may affect outcomes: how does one determine how to bring about the transformation that is needed?

For Murphy, then, the core moral question for transitional justice is how to justly pursue societal transformation. How does a society transform the structure of political relationships so that it is based on respect for agency and reciprocity? As she notes, in this context transitional justice can be linked to reconciliation, or more aptly improving damaged relationships, a subject on which she has written a separate book. In this book, Murphy argues that such a transformation depends on establishing respect for rule of law, a certain extent of relational capabilities, and reasonable political trust, and that transitional justice can contribute to this transformation in direct and indirect ways—for example, by acknowledging the need for change and giving people hope that such change can in fact come about.

The book also contends that specific transitional justice processes should constitute fitting and appropriate responses to victims and perpetrators of past wrongdoing. The processes should, in other words, respect the core moral claims associated with being a victim or a perpetrator of wrongdoing. This, she suggests, can be assessed by taking into consideration the moral aims of the response, including repudiation, accountability, acknowledgment, recognition, reparation, and non-recurrence; the relationship between the responder and the subject of the response; the nature of the wrongdoing, in that it should deal with actual harms and respect due process; and the cultural norms and consequences of the action. Furthermore, responses to wrongdoing should be holistic, in that they should be multiple and coordinated, because, among other reasons, no single response can achieve the relevant moral aims, while the expressive meaning of each response is shaped by other responses.

The short case studies in the final chapter focus on the Ugandan amnesty commission and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. If the point of these examples is to show the inherent limitations of single responses, however, these seem unusual choices, as an amnesty body and an international tribunal bring with them a whole set of issues that most national-level transitional justice processes do not necessarily have to deal with. Furthermore, while not disagreeing with Murphy’s assessment of the flaws of these processes, it is important to note that some flaws are inherent limitations of the type of response, and some flaws are correctable or avoidable process issues. Moreover, given the limitations of each specific process, they will only address certain issues; thus, the question may be one of overall design or political will rather than the mechanisms themselves, which are established for particular purposes. As she points out, no program of reparations in Uganda could have dealt with the layered harms and social consequences experienced by victims, for example, but courts can take steps to be less removed from local populations.

Interestingly, the book explicitly does not examine in detail specific responses to wrongdoing, or the contribution that such responses may make to societal transformation or the moral claims of victims and perpetrators. As the author explains in her conclusion that this is because she believes our understanding of the moral functions, impact, and expressive meaning of such responses is limited, and that more research is needed before such a discussion should be had. Furthermore, with this book Murphy writes that she wants to encourage societies to expand the range of responses to wrongdoing that they consider, and discussing specific existing responses—which, it is true, tend to cluster around criminal prosecutions, truth telling, reparations, and certain kinds of institutional reform—may reinforce what exists now as the full range of options. She points to areas such as art, theater, and television, debt forgiveness and land redistribution, and education as potentially important responses to wrongdoing that may fall outside the current set of measures generally considered transitional justice.

In this, she echoes a 2015 report of Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, emphasizing the relevance of non-institutional responses in the realm of the cultural and the individual in preventing the recurrence of violations.[1] Also relevant is the notion of “transformative justice,” which some argue would target the structural causes of human rights violations more directly than transitional justice. Murphy does not address this notion explicitly, but she is similarly arguing for an expanded response to broad injustice, although it seems within the concept of transitional justice rather than within a new notion. Either way, the argument raises significant questions about the distinction and relationship between responses to human rights violations and processes such as development and peacebuilding. As the book notes, ICTJ has conducted research on education as an important part of the way in which societies respond to wrongdoing, although without necessarily explicitly categorizing educational initiatives as transitional justice.

The book also makes an interesting argument regarding the requirements for transitional justice to be considered just. Drawing on the structure of just war theory, which requires that armed conflict satisfy both requirements of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, Murphy argues that in order to be morally defensible, responses to past wrongdoing must satisfy two requirements: a morally permissible objective, in that they must contribute to societal transformation; and a morally permissible manner, in that they must be fitting and appropriate, as discussed above. She acknowledges that the just nature of different responses is scalar—that is, they can be assessed as being more or less just.

Murphy’s argument that pervasive structural inequality is so integrally connected to normalized wrongdoing is persuasive that transforming political relationships should be an equally integral element of transitional justice. However, the claim that responses to wrongdoing necessarily fail to be just if they do not contribute to societal transformation seems debatable and run counter to some of Murphy’s own argumentation. As she acknowledges, to see transitional justice as only instrumental is problematic: claims for transitional justice “have an independent, non-instrumental moral importance. To regard wrongdoing as valuable only instrumentally is insulting to victims and insufficiently respectful of the agency of perpetrators” (page 114). If responses to wrongdoing that respect the moral claims of victims and perpetrators have an independent moral importance and therefore should not be seen as having only instrumental value, why then must they also be instrumental in order to be just? One can argue that responses that are not instrumental to societal transformation may not qualify as transitional justice, according to Murphy’s conceptualization of the notion, but they can still be morally defensible and just, can they not?

The book also makes a compelling case that democratization is a necessary part of the societal transformation to which transitional justice can contribute. This will be contested by others, but it seems reasonable to argue that democracy is necessary for the establishment of political relationships among equals based on the values of reciprocal agency, which is necessary in turn for the protection of fundamental human rights and the prevention of the recurrence of normalized wrongdoing. One can ask, however, that if democracy is necessary to societal transformation, then why is peace not? Is peace not necessary for the protection of fundamental rights? Murphy does discuss transitions out of conflict, and specifically notes that the cessation of violence can contribute to giving hope to people that change is possible. But she does not explicitly make the case that the prevention of the recurrence of armed conflict should be considered a necessary part of societal transformation from a justice perspective.

While the book does focus on conceptual and, in some sense, scholarly issues, it also will be useful to practitioners. Many of the issues that have been surfaced by Murphy are ones that we, as practitioners, face on the ground. For example, issues of marginalization and of economic exclusion and of the goal of democratization are important elements in our work. In some cases, they are not thought through as thoroughly as we would like. This book helps provide a framework for those kinds of discussions, which helps practitioners find practical solutions.

[1] UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/42, September 7, 2015.