Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Elisa Finohiaro

The flashy branding of the transitional justice process as ‘TJ’ does more to keep oppressive systems in place than to bring real progress where it is needed. Transitional justice must be used as a catalyst to foment real, case-by-case systemic changes instead of as a one-size-fits-all neoliberal template.

The present collection on transitional justice represents an important corrective to the dominant trend within the field. In this collection, questions of natural resources, gender, international relations and structural violence are included as part of the discussion of transitional justice. This is contrary to the increasingly narrow scope that has come to characterize most discussions of transitional justice, especially in the West. In this dominant Western framework, transitional justice has been transformed from the justice associated with major regime transitions, in particular at the end of socialist or authoritarian states, to a set of policy tools that can be picked and chosen from by international interveners to bring about their desired objectives anywhere in the world. It has become a form of technocratic international governance, and in the process what was ‘transitional justice’ has become ‘TJ’. This TJ, promoted by a TJ industry, has risen to prominence on the back of post-Cold War US interventionism and global neoliberalism.

By turning transitional justice into TJ, into a catchy two-letter abbreviation, the TJ industry has erased the many different meanings and possibilities that are present in the words ‘transitional’ and ‘justice’. Both of these words are inherently open to all sorts of political possibilities and interpretations. Instead, we are presented with an abbreviation, a buzzword, whose meaning is entirely under the control of the industry that invented it and promotes it.

By erasing other possible understandings of transitional justice, the TJ industry has created a policy toolbox—the International Criminal Court (ICC), hybrid tribunals, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs), national trials and so on—that are deployed universally wherever certain conditions are met. This focus on the constant fine-tuning of TJ tools, of technical means that can be applied to any situation anywhere in the world, leads to a certain blindness as alternative or different meanings or possibilities of the words ‘transitional’ or ‘justice’ are silenced.

What is left out by reducing transitional justice to TJ and restricting it to a neoliberal governance model? What areas are declared off-limits by the TJ industry?

First, TJ restricts justice to the steps that can be taken to deal with a discrete episode of violence from the past; it is thus blind to the mounting and generalized injustice of political and economic order today. TJ leaves out the economy—there can be no transition away from neoliberal capitalism, the TJ industry declares. Redistribution of private property or other policies that might be necessary to promote social or economic justice are deemed unacceptable—in fact, they may be condemned as human rights violations themselves. TJ ignores the international forces that are at work in sustained periods of political violence, and leaves unasked questions of neocolonialism or imperialism. TJ excludes alternative visions of the political order that should be the endpoint of transitions.

To be reminded of how restricted this TJ is, we must only look to the very recent past to see the very different meanings that ‘transition’ and ‘justice’ have possessed. Only a few decades ago, transitional justice could be seen as revolutionary justice, as the justice that is to be ushered in with an entirely new order, the justice of making the last first, as Fanon described. Or transitional justice can be understood as the justice of transitions to self-determination, the justice of the eradication of colonial rule, of the abolishment of exploitation or imperialism, of the radical redistribution of land or resources. Or it can be tied to global justice, the justice of transnational solidarity and internationalism. It may even possibly entail transitions away from neoliberal capitalism and the modern state themselves!

However, these alternative visions of transitional justice are ignored because they may not conform to liberal norms or to the respect for property rights. They are ignored because they will definitely not conform to the absolute respect for existing international power structures or the international economic order.

We see these international political and economic structures built into TJ itself: indeed, TJ in Africa is not sustainable, is not even possible, without donor funding. The ‘need’ for donor support is implicit within the TJ model. In contrast, the idea that funding from Western states or donors is necessary to bring about transitional justice in Africa would have been absurd a few decades ago—it would have been seen as a reactionary, neo-colonialist position. The idea that donor funding is necessary for an anti-colonial struggle was unthinkable; in this sense, TJ may be impossible without donor funding, but transitional justice may be impossible with donor funding.

Today, however, we are presented with a unique opportunity to think more broadly about transitional justice—to think about transitional justice beyond TJ. We have the opportunity to think not just about what is wrong with TJ as it currently exists, but rather to think about transitional justice as it does not exist at present, to think about the possibilities that have been closed off and that might be opened again.

This opportunity has arisen out of today’s novel world-historical transformation: the decline of Western global hegemony and the rise of other powers, in particular China. This changing international order presents an unprecedented opportunity for thinking about different possibilities of transitional justice. It allows us the space to imagine alternative political visions or paradigms that might inform alternative understandings of transitional justice.

However, it is up to us to seize this opportunity; we cannot sit back and simply assume that China’s rise and the West’s decline will automatically create new possibilities. This is because, at present, we are seeing a significant convergence between China and the West around common models for their engagement with Africa. For one thing, they both are focusing on state-centred stabilization. Both are working directly with states, building those states’ security capacities, whether as part of a development, Responsibility to Protect (R2P), counterinsurgency, counterterrorism or transitional justice agenda. Both the West and China are happy to provide massive military aid to Africa and to build militarized security states throughout the continent. My concern is that the differences between the Chinese and Western approaches to state building, stabilization, development—and TJ—may be a difference of degree, not of kind.

More importantly, however, there are certain fundamental issues that remain off-limits in discussions of both China’s and the West’s engagement with Africa, issues that need to be questioned if we are to go beyond TJ and re-think transitional justice itself. The neoliberal economy—even if it is state-guided capitalism—remains an article of faith, as does an uncompromising pro-capitalist orientation. Chinese and Western approaches remain top-down and elite-centred, with a focus on security for states and their elites. Neither proposes a fundamental reform of the state itself. Both ignore issues of class and of exploitation. Both have visions for rural reform based upon commercialization, often accompanied by massive land alienation and displacement. And finally, state repression is ignored—China disregards state repression as a policy, while the West selectively ignores repression of its allies in the War on Terror.

If this is true, then the rise of China and the decline of the West may reproduce the same narrowness that has plagued the TJ industry up until now. Even if China foots the bill for TJ activities, those activities would still be primarily technical, ignoring fundamental economic or political transformation, and divorced from questions of international power. A TJ ‘with Chinese characteristics’ would still look a lot like today’s TJ.

However, we cannot let the fact that China seems as fixated on state-centred stabilization as the West has been to lead us to lose this unique historical opportunity to re-think transitional justice. We should not let our imaginations of the future be restricted by the frameworks defined by the West in the period of post-Cold War neoliberal governance and US hegemony.

We have to start by seeing the transformations at work today as going far beyond a purported decline of the West and rise of China; we can’t let Western-created frameworks for conceptualizing the relation between Africa and the West determine how we think about African-Asian-Latin American relations today and the place of transitional justice within those relations. Instead, we should look around the world and seek out new visions of justice and new visions of political transitions that
are emerging. And indeed, there are new visions arising throughout the world—from the turn to the left of many Latin American governments to the upsurge of popular protest everywhere. These efforts to create transitions and forge justice are calling capitalism, the state and the neoliberal consensus themselves into question.

How might transitional justice be transformed through engaging with these visions of self-determination and sovereignty in social, cultural, political or economic spheres? What visions can be found in other global histories, not the self-aggrandizing Western history of the rise of human rights, but rather histories that have been silenced but are now being freed and remembered, histories that are identified with ideas such as Bandung, anti-colonial solidarity, non-alignment, Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental? What histories of international social solidarity can provide the foundation for new visions upon which to base a transformed transitional justice: Asians fighting for African independence and against Apartheid, or Africans fighting against fascism in Europe? Transitional justice is a question, not an answer; it is a question that all who seek a transition away from the injustice of the present order can help try to answer.

*Adam Branch is Associate Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. He can be reached at [email protected]

* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.