New Symposium: The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice

Colleen Murphy has written an excellent and important book, entitled The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice (CUP, 2017), that a distinguished set of scholars from a range of disciplines begins to discuss. The rise of Transitional Justice as a distinct field over the past several decades has enjoyed much excellent literature, but Colleen Murphy’s new book is among the first to offer a dense philosophical account of the field. Necessarily, this account will hold much of interest to scholars from philosophy, but it will also have implications for international lawyers, criminal law theorists, international criminal lawyers and human rights scholars. This blog also seeks to showcase groundbreaking, normatively creative new works that reach a broad array of scholars and practitioners alike, and this book certainly meets that mark. The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice will, no doubt, be a major contribution to the field and discussed for decades to come, so it is a great pleasure to begin those conversations with an expert cast of highly accomplished scholars and leading practitioners.  

I will not provide a detailed overview of the book except to highlight important themes.  In Chapter 1, Murphy starts be plotting the circumstances of transitional justice, which she argues demonstrate four elements. Justice in transitional societies is different in type because these societies experience all of the following: (a) pervasive structural inequality; (b) normalized collective and political wrongdoing; (c) serious existential uncertainty; and (d) fundamental uncertainty about authority. In Chapter 2, Murphy argues that ordinary ideas about retribution, corrective justice, and restitution do not cater to the needs of societies undergoing transition according to her definition. These segments of the book are richly informative about both the political context of transitional society, and their intersection with philosophical bases for different theories of justice. The resulting account rejects Posner and Vermeule’s notion that Transitional Justice is just like ordinary justice, positing the existence of a conceptually self-contained set of principles governing the field. In Chapter 3, Murphy provides a substantive account of societal transformation, drawing on relational transformation, rule of law and relational capacities. In Chapter 4, she highlights constraints on this transformation, based on whether Transitional Justice initiatives are “intrinsically fitting or appropriate as a response to victims or perpetrations of wrongdoing.”  

I am excited to host a range of leading experts from a variety of fields.  Roger Duthie and David Tolbert are the Director of Research and President of the International Center for Transitional Justice respectively, an organization which works with victims, civil society, and national and international organizations within countries that have endured massive human rights abuses. Duthie and Tolbert provide fascinating commentary on the book through the lens of the ICTJ’s active work.  Laurel Fletcher directs the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley, School of Law, adopting an interdisciplinary, practical approach to human rights issues.  Fletcher’s contribution speaks to the lack of theoretical grounding in the field of transitional justice up until now, and what impact the adoption of a moral philosophy might have.  The work of Nir Eisikovits of University of Massachusetts Boston focuses on philosophy and applied ethics, in particular the ethics of war and political philosophy.  He describes Murphy’s book as “the best, most ambitious philosophical account of transitional justice” he has ever read and points to important implications arising from it. And last but not least, Steven Ratner at University of Michigan Law School focuses on Murphy’s call for “an original methodological hook for analyzing the justice of a state’s transitional justice choices,” exploring the legal ramifications of Murphy’s theories.  My own comments offer thoughts about compartmentalizing transitional justice, using cases against foreign businesses as a vantage point.  

As an ensemble, I hope the resulting body of perspectives showcases this important work and offers fresh ideas for future thinking.