Transitional justice in transition

#WR2050 9 / October 2021

Author: Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias, Associate professor Universitat Internacional de Catalunya and GLOBALCODES researcher at Blanquerna-Universitat Ramon Llull

Transitional justice has been defined and operationalized as a set of mechanisms to come to terms with human rights violations and atrocities of a violent past. Yet, the transiting feature of this field of practice and theorization has encountered many limitations given the short-term view of the process and its focus on the past -- and perhaps in the present -- instead of the future. Refocusing TJ as a continuum that looks back and forward at the same time is a task that practitioners and researchers are aiming at accomplishing in order to account for persistent structural forms of violence and continuities of violence and exclusion, most of the times inherited from colonial times.

The cornerstone of this problematic dynamic is the tendency to see everything as a linear process instead of a systemic and relational one. Giving meaning to the past to offer a more stable and harmonious future does not exclusively imply naming some culprits and declaring a single truth about the conflict or a dictatorial regime. On the contrary, transitional justice practices have shown that these 'inter' periods are the ones that allow a plurality of narratives and experiences of truth and justice to emerge. Precisely when talking about the need to incorporate ‘the locals’ in the process, it is a mistake to think that it should be done to gain legitimacy or ensure long-term stability, the reality is that its inclusion should serve to break with hegemonic discourses and totalizing practices, and open space to a plurality of possibilities of reconciliation and construction of new relationships, social fabric and the imaginary of what is shaping up to the future.

A case in point is Colombia where the official Truth Commission is about to launch the final report of the truth-telling process, knowing that it will generate a very strong debate in a very polarized society and will receive a lot of criticism from the most conservative sectors close to the political parties that have opposed the peace process and have denied the conflict in the past. Rather than seeing this reaction as a step back and a peril to reopen scars and ignite a discursive fight in the public domain, the commissioners expect that its publication breaks with the silences imposed for a long time, questioning single truths and opening up the discussion for alternative voices.

The articulation of a plurality of voices and approaches to peace and justice will go beyond transitional justice periods defined by official mandates. The power struggles in place among different actors, institutions, and worldviews will continue to be shaped and accommodated in post-conflict and post-authoritarian times. These ongoing discursive battles also allow for the broadening of the scope of the field beyond criminal prosecutions, legal paradigms and truth commissions, including the need to incorporate socioeconomic and environmental justice, a reconceptualization of identities, and nation-building narratives.  In sum, the transformative character of transitional justice lies in the ability to shake the coloniality of power, knowledge and being embedded in many societies today.