Upcoming Inquiries for the Field of Transitional Justice: Response to Commentaries

Colleen Murphy is a Professor in the College of Law and the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program in International Programs and Studies, and Affiliate Faculty of the Beckman Institute.

Transitional justice is the process of reckoning with past wrongs in the midst of an attempted transition away from extended periods of conflict or repression. In my book, The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice, I examine the question of how we should understand the “justice” of “transitional justice.” By what standard or set of principles should we judge “justice to have been done” in the way a society deals with past wrongs in the context of a transition? How should we think about the justice of processes like truth commissions, amnesty or reparations? I argue that retributive justice, corrective justice and distributive justice are not the standards to use to answer these questions.

“Transitional justice” has its own standards of justice, standards which become salient in the context of four specific circumstances. These circumstances are (1) pervasive structural inequality in the terms by which citizens and officials interact; (2) normalized collective and political wrongdoing, in which human rights violations become a basic fact of life; (3) serious existential uncertainty, where the future trajectory of a political community is profoundly unclear; and (4) fundamental uncertainty about authority given that the state is characteristically implicated in wrongdoing. In these circumstances, I argue, the central question of justice is: what constitutes the just pursuit of societal transformation? I define societal transformation as relational transformation, transformation of relationships among citizens and between citizens and officials. Justice is done when processes contribute to this relational transformation and so in a way that is sensitive to the claims of victims and moral demands on perpetrators of wrongdoing.

I am very grateful to David Tolbert and Roger Duthie, Laurel Fletcher, Steven Ratner, Nir Eisikovits, and James Stewart for their careful reading of my book and for pressing me on some of the most difficult questions for me to answer adequately. Below I respond to their queries by discussing (1) the relationship among development, peacebuilding and transitional justice; (2) the relationship between the requirements of societal transformation and the requirements for its just pursuit; (3) where I identify the limits of transitional justice.

Development, peacebuilding and transitional justice

Consider first development and transitional justice.[1] Development I take to be concerned with the expansion of individual and communal capabilities. Capabilities refer to genuine opportunities to do and become things of value, such as being adequately nourished, being employed and being educated. Genuine opportunities are a function of (1) what an individual has (e.g., skills and resources) and (2) what she can do with what she has (e.g., given the state of the built infrastructure within a community or gender norms.) Poverty from this perspective is defined in terms of deprivations, such as “inadequate resources to buy the basic necessities of life; frequent bouts of illness and an early death; living conditions that imperil physical and mental health.”[2]

The imperatives of development and transitional justice overlap to a certain extent. For example, my account of relational transformation includes fostering threshold levels of capabilities, including the capability to avoid poverty. Thus, processes that aim at or contribute to poverty reduction can promote both development and transitional justice. However, development and transitional justice may also diverge. For example, development policies may prioritize natural hazard mitigation, which is recognized to be essential to the sustainability of development but which is not essential to relational transformation. Furthermore, transitional justice is constrained in ways that development is not. Transitional justice pursues relational transformation by responding to past wrongs, and so prioritizes victims of wrongdoing, many but not all of whom are poor. Thus, development policies aimed at the most effective alleviation of poverty may not focus on the same group.

What is the role of peace in my account of transitional justice, Ratner, Tolbert and Duthie ask? Short-term peace is often a condition for the possibility of longer-term societal transformation.[3] For instance, reductions in violence, especially through cease-fires and other truces, can contribute to establishing or strengthening the conditions on which the rule of law depends. The rule of law requires restraint on the part of both officials and citizens. And part of what motivates citizens to exercise this restraint is faith in law and trust in the officials who make and enforce law. By respecting the restraint required by a period of a ceasefire or truce, citizens and officials previously in conflict can have evidence that wider restraint required by the rule of law may be possible, and so in a very minimal way begin to build trust.

Eisikovits wonders whether I have overlooked an important source of fragility in transitional contexts, which exacerbates serious existential uncertainty and fundamental uncertainty about authority: the absence of shared political history and identity. Such history and identity, he suggests, provides a shared background against which to evaluate contemporary events, resources for agreeing where political events are indeed different than challenges faced and overcome in the past. In response, I agree that the absence of shared history and identity is surely salient in many transitional contexts. Indeed, diverging and in some respects incompatible historical narratives is a crucial feature of contexts where deep divisions exist. Whether in Serbia, Bosnia, Northern Ireland or Colombia, diverging narratives are present of what wrongs were done, by whom and against whom, and what events and people should be remembered and in what way. It was in part the question of how to think about the absence of shared narratives and identity, and the implications for liberalism and democracy that my interest in political reconciliation and then in transitional justice first arose. I wondered whether what the philosopher John Stuart Mill called “common sympathies” were in fact necessary for the kind of governance he envisioned.

However, I think a key source of political fragility is a shared sense of the plausible practical possibilities through which a transitional society must navigate and of what those possibilities actually entail. If a society is emerging from a period of civil war, a return to civil war is not merely a rhetorical question politicians or citizens may ask, but a genuine practical possibility. It is one option of many along a spectrum of what may happen. By contrast, though we had a civil war 150 years ago, another civil war is not a practical possibility for Americans today despite deep political divisions and widely diverging narratives of our present moment; there is no shared sense of this being a practical possibility of where our divisions may lead. Nor do many Americans have a robust sense of what civil war would actually entail. Thus, I am more inclined to think that what exacerbates uncertainty is the fact that certain possibilities for where events may lead are not merely hypothetical and are widely recognized not to be merely hypothetical given recent history, rather than the absence of shared narratives.

Societal transformation and its just pursuit

A second cluster of questions that the commentators raise concerns the two dimensions of transitional justice I articulate: societal transformation and its just pursuit. Ratner wonders whether societal transformation is the unique or best way of addressing the problem that the four circumstances of justice generate. In my view, societal transformation is not the only possible candidate of the problem the four circumstances of justice generate. One function of my argument in Chapter 2 is to demonstrate the limitations of some alternative ways of defining the problem of transitional justice, drawn from standard accounts of retributive, corrective and distributive justice. Relative to these alternative possibilities, I argue, transformation is the best way of conceptualizing the problem of transitional justice. As I acknowledge in the conclusion, however, there are different ways of filling out transformation than the substantive view that I articulate in Chapter 3. One may think of transformation not in terms of relationships, for example, or may think of what relational transformation requires in ways that do not invoke (only) the rule of law, trust and relational capabilities. In adjudicating among conceptions of transformation, one account would be better in my view if it more effectively responded to pervasive structural inequality and normalized collective and political wrongdoing.

How should we understand the status of the “just pursuit” of transformation, Ratner, Tolbert and Duthie all press? Is there intrinsic value to the requirements of fitting and appropriate conduct of treatment of victims and perpetrators? Could be processes of justice that respond to the claims of victims and demands on perpetrators but not aim at broader transformation? The answer to both questions in my view is yes. In my view, a just reparations scheme could narrowly aim at acknowledging wrongdoing experienced and providing compensation for losses suffered by victims, respecting the other conditions for pursuing these aims I discuss in Chapter 4. It would be just insofar as it satisfied these intrinsically important criteria for fitting and appropriate treatment of victims. However, this process would not be a process of transitional justice in my view. In transitional justice, the requirements of fitting and appropriate treatment of perpetrators and victims play an additional, instrumental role in contributing to societal transformation; the aim of transformation is necessary for a process to be one of transitional justice.

Are the requirements of societal transformation and of fitting treatment of perpetrators and victims interdependent or independent? I use just war theory as a model for understanding the relationship between the two parts of transitional justice. However, Ratner notes that the two dimensions of just war are not completely independent in practice. The justice of the cause of anti-colonial fighters came to shape the justice of their actions. In terms of transitional justice, given the tight relationship in practice between pervasive structural inequality and normalized collective and political wrongdoing, there will be a tight relationship between the prospects for societal transformation and satisfaction of the demands for its just pursuit. For example, one aspect of societal transformation is establishing threshold levels of opportunities to be recognized as an equal member of one’s community. This is also an aim of responses to individual victims, to acknowledge them as equal members of their community. Thus, by expressing recognition of the victim as an equal member of a community a process can impact the transformative aim of establishing threshold opportunities to be recognized as members of a community of a previously marginalized group. In future work, I hope to think through this question of interdependence more fully.

Can these two parts of transitional justice ever be in tension? Yes. I agree with Eisikovits’ point that there can be tensions that arise in the pursuit of societal transformation and respect for the claims of victims and demands on perpetrators. There may need to be compromises made in the pursuit of transitional justice, and one place is in balancing the demands of transformation and the demands of fitting and appropriate treatment of perpetrators and victims. The balance or compromise may be between the degree of accountability achieved and the degree of the contribution of a process to broader relational transformation. Amnesties, which Eisikovits references, can illustrate this balance, though I do not believe amnesties are necessarily incompatible with just treatment of perpetrators. Depending on the conditions which must be satisfied to be eligible for amnesty, there can be a measure of accountability for perpetrators achieved.

A different tension may arise in trying to pursue transformation in a manner consistent with the kind of relationships you aim to foster. In particular, there is a question of whether democratic relationships can permissibly be pursued non-democratically. Answering this question is difficult in part because it is not obvious what demands democracy place in choices concerning transitional justice; this is an issue I want to also take up more directly in future work. What kind of say over what kind(s) of questions should the people have for transitional justice to be democratically decided? This question underlies debates in Colombia over how to think about democratic legitimacy of the decision not to hold a second plebiscite on the revised Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace, after the original version of the Final Accord failed in the first plebiscite. 

The limits of transitional justice

Stewart, Tolbert and Duthie press me on the limits of my theory. Tolbert and Duthie press me on the limits of possible processes of transitional justice, given my call to expand the processes considered beyond criminal trials, truth commissions, reparations, amnesty and memorials. Specifically, how I would evaluate educational reform? In my view, whether education will be a process of transitional justice depends. Educational changes could count as processes of transitional justice. Specifically, how history is taught may be modified to more explicitly acknowledge past wrongdoing, both as a way of recognizing the dignity and citizenship of those previously denied such recognition and as a way of facilitating societal transformation by countering denial about the prevalence of, nature of, and/or conditions that facilitated wrongdoing. Other educational reforms not specifically dealing with the wrongs of the past may contribute to societal transformation but would not count as processes of transitional justice in my view.

Stewart’s post highlights the international character of many contemporary conflicts and the causal role of international actors in maintaining repressive regimes and in atrocity. Such actors include multinational corporations as well as foreign governments.  He also correctly notes the implicit in my account is a focus on a single domestic society. How can my framework account for the global dimensions of transitional justice? Here are some preliminary thoughts, which I look forward to expanding on in greater detail in my next project. Consider first the requirements for the fitting and appropriate treatment of perpetrators and of victims. Those moral demands do not have geographical limits. There is no principled reason to cordon off the role of international actors implicated causally in atrocity. The question is: how, by whom, and for what purpose(s) will these demands be pursued? Accountability for international actors may be pursued for its own sake, and not just by a transitional society but also by, for example, the home country where a corporation is based. Accountability may be pursued for its own sake and also for the sake of societal transformation; this would be a case of its pursuit as part of transitional justice. When pursued as part of transitional justice, the question of the form accountability will take to facilitate societal transformation is one for the transitional society in question primarily to decide, subject to parameters set by international law. Finally, in terms of transformation itself, I also agree with Stewart that our interdependent global order and influential actors like multinational corporations mean that that transformative possibilities will not in many cases be set or determined by domestic actors alone. I also agree that global justice, by which philosophers mean justice in the background global institutional order that shapes the distribution of goods and resources, may be important for its own sake and for enabling, or at a minimum not undermining, local transformation of relationships between citizens and officials.

Fletcher, Tolbert and Duthie all approach my book from the perspective of practitioners and ask: will my book make a difference to transitional justice theory and practice? They note ways in which my account is responsive to concerns among practitioners and scholars, including the fact that structural marginalization and discrimination are key factors in mass violence. Fletcher also suggests that my account provides guidance on how to move beyond currently intractable disagreements concerning, for example, how to balance legal duties to truth, reparations, accountability and non-recurrence, where these duties can be thought of as reflecting duties of different kinds of justice. Instead, my account she rightly notes suggests we instead ask: what processes will transform relationships both among citizens and between the state and citizens? My hope is that my book can contribute to shaping and rethinking the questions asked by both scholars and practitioners, though only time will tell if this indeed becomes the case.


[1] The brief points made here I develop in greater detail in Deliberative Democracy and Agency: Linking Transitional Justice and Development, in Lori Keleher and Stacy J. Kosko (eds.), Agency and Democracy in Development Ethics (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2018).

[2] I draw on the capability approach to development pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. The quote is from James Foster, Suman Seth, Michael Lokshin, and Zurab Sajaia, A Unified Approach to Measuring Poverty and Inequality (Washington DC: World Bank, 2013)

[3] The question of the relationship between peace and transitional justice I develop in some detail in Colleen Murphy, Political Reconciliation, the Rule of Law, and Truces, 13 Journal of Global Ethics 28 (2017).