Summer School: Transitional Justice and Reconciliation

by: Jessie Hronseova

Transitional Justice and Reconciliation, lecture delivered by Susanne Buckley-Zistel, 16 September


The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.

Robert Jackson’s Opening Statement in Nuremberg, 1945

The Nuremberg tribunal of 1945-6 was the first of its kind to try and punish the main architects of the most egregious crimes of the 20th century – the Holocaust. Its aim was also to publicly show what too many Germans denied to believe: that a meticulously planned extermination of a people was carried out in the immediate vicinity of their homes and in their name. The tribunal was established by Allied forces immediately after the Second World War with the exclusion of any German participation, and hence has been repeatedly refereed to as delivering merely “victors’ justice”. Together with Tokyo it remained the only international war crimes tribunal until the end of the Cold war. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, its legacy was finally resuscitated through a variety of post-conflict mechanisms aimed at uncovering the truth about a violent past, deterring future human rights violations crimes, vindicating the dignity of victims, and encouraging reconciliation. A new field comprehensively analyzing these goals and mechanisms has entered into social sciences – the so-called transitional justice.

Transitional justice has since then turned into a “global norm”, as Dr Susanne Buckley-Zistel argued during a lecture delivered in the scope of the Willy Brandt Summer School 2013. Her opinion is certainly supported by a burgeoning literature in the field. Rosemary Nagy as one of the main critics of the unqualified proliferation of post-war justice suggested that it has become a “global project”, which does not question “whether something should be done after atrocity but how it should be done” (Nagy 2008, p.276).  Despite growing voices suggesting that transitional justice can have severe negative side effects (see Vinjamuri and Snyder 2004), the international community has been fiercely promoting various justice mechanisms as part of peace-building, post-conflict stabilization, state-building and democratization initiatives, investing significant resources into its advocacy and promotion. International, national and hybrid war trials, truth commissions, memory initiatives, and reparations have been implemented under the common transitional justice label across the world with the belief that its merits would induce reconciliation and ultimately democratization in the majority of post-authoritarian and post-conflict states. The latter group was given a particular attention during the lecture delivered in Erfurt, due to its relevance for the overall theme of the summer school – good governance in fragile contexts.

The fundamental question is thus the relationships between transitional justice and reconciliation in fragile contexts and its link to regime volatility. In this respect, reconciliation is taken as a proxy for societal peace and stability. As evidenced during the lecture on a vast number of examples from South Africa to the former Yugoslavia, the balance of transitional justice is very unsatisfying. International war crimes tribunals have often led to even more divisions than points of unification and truth commissions without any legal repercussions have not delivered justice in the eyes of those who suffered. Yet there is a range of other imminent questions, which increasingly trouble scholars and practitioners of this field: in who’s interest is it to deal with the past? After all, as Dr Buckley-Zistel reminded us, “we all think that justice is objective but it is not.  Who, how, and when is indicted can be highly political”. This can have some serious controversial repercussions and lead to tensions, especially in highly fragile contexts.


Dr Buckley-Zistel referred to her field experience in Rwanda, which was offered as an example of an original approach to transitional justice though its gacaca local trials. Gacacas were created through a combination of local truth commissions and local trials, further liable to national jurisdiction. Over 12,000 gacacas were set up in Rwanda until 2012, trying 1,2 million accused Hutus. Despite the clear appeal of such a localized way of coming to terms with the past while punishing perpetrators, Dr Buckley-Zistel argued how imperfect and even dangerous these trials have been in Rwanda. Firstly, there are not enough safeguards for witnesses who step forward to testify: intimidation, threats and even deaths have often prevented many testimonies. Secondly, oral evidence only is extremely precarious and subject to painful memories of survivors, which are often stricken by grief rather than motivated by legal justice. Lastly, whether gacaca can truly deliver justice and reconciliation in a context where one million members of one group were brutally massacred by their co-nationals seems to be an extremely ambitious goal.

Transitional justice thus remains a highly important yet controversial field of research and practice. Its goals are elephantine, yet its results contentious. Such controversies only call for further research and further interest in how to reckon with a violent past in order to create a peaceful future.