- Transitional justice processes are meant to mark a break with the past, but the past tends to persist in complex ways
- Transitional justice mechanisms include truth commissions and international criminal trials.
- These are increasingly seen as tools that can help to bring about, or reinforce, a society’s transition from conflict to peace and authoritarianism to democracy.
- However, these mechanisms often fall short of the expectations held for them, and may in fact reinforce injustice.
- New Warwick research explores their limitations, focusing on the example of Kenya, and warns that one size does not fit all
In a new book launched this week, Professor Gabrielle Lynch from the Department of Politics and International Studies explores the limitations of transitional justice mechanisms as a means of marking a break with the past in societies which have suffered conflict or authoritarianism.
Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya focuses on Kenya’s attempts to recover from unprecedented post-election violence in 2007-08.
The book explores the impact of Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), which sat from 2009 to 2013. Often dismissed as just another commission of inquiry, the TJRC received more than 40,000 statements, undertook public hearings in 35 locations across the country and published a substantial report that runs to over 2,000 pages.
Professor Lynch also considers the impact of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) intervention, which many came to regard as a neo-colonial forum of injustice and which contributed to the election in 2013 of two politicians indicted for organising violence against each other’s communities.
Professor Lynch said: “Having been in Kenya for the post-election violence of 2007/8, which claimed over 1,000 lives and led to the displacement of almost 700,000 others, and having conducted research in the Rift Valley, the epicentre of the violence, since 2003, I wanted to investigate how the country would seek to recover from the crisis.”
“Soon after the post-election violence of 2007/8, people both within in and outside of Kenya started to talk about the need for transitional justice. But how would these mechanisms play out in Kenya? Would they live up to the myth of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or would they ultimately fall far short of ambitious aims?”
“Once the ICC and TJRC processes began, it quickly became clear that these carefully stage-managed processes were in danger of being undermined by hostile receptions.”
Drawing upon extensive fieldwork, Professor Lynch argues that transitional justice mechanisms can make a contribution to a sense of ending or change through tangible outcomes, such as the provision of compensation to victims of human rights abuses. They can also demonstrate a commitment to a new type of politics, for example, to a new human rights regime that respects the dignity of all citizens, and thus help to enact a break with the past, Professor Lynch describes this as the ‘performative aspect’ of transitional justice.
She added: “However, these performances are incredibly difficult to get right, since their impact rests not only on their internal design, but also on their reception, and on the broader political context.”
Professor Lynch’s work has revealed that this problem is exacerbated by the fact that transitional justice efforts are short-term processes that often enjoy limited mandates. As such they are incapable of dealing with the ways in which unjust and violent pasts persist. This requires substantive socio-economic and political change that transitional justice mechanisms can theoretically recommend, and which they can sometimes help to initiate and inform, but which they cannot immediately bring about. At the same time, transitional justice efforts can sometimes unintentionally help to reinforce certain problems, inequalities and injustices, as, she argues, occurred in Kenya – for example, with gender relations and a culture of impunity.
Professor Lynch added: “While much hope is often placed, and much time and money expended, on transitional justice efforts around the world, it is increasingly evident that these mechanisms often fall far short of their ambitious goals.
“I am not calling for the ideas or approaches of transitional justice to be abandoned, but we should stop viewing such mechanisms as tools that can be applied with similar effects in any post-authoritarian or conflict situation.
“We need a more complex understanding of the ways in which the past actually persists and the ways in which possible futures infringe on the present. And we must avoid easy assertions of closure.”
• The book draws upon research conducted as part of a three-year Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) First Grant project entitled “Truth and Justice: The Search for Peace and Stability in Modern Kenya”
- Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya by Gabrielle Lynch, Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, is published by Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108575164.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gabrielle Lynch is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include ethnic identities and politics, elections and democratisaton, and transitional justice and local reconciliation efforts with a particular focus on Kenya. Gabrielle has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, and her first monograph – I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya – was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011.
Gabrielle is a well-known commentator on Kenyan politics. She wrote a bi-monthly column in the Saturday Nation (the Saturday edition of the country’s leading daily newspaper) from April 2014 to March 2017 (when she resigned together with seven other columnists in protest of declining media freedoms) and in The East African (the main regional newspaper) from November 2015 to January 2017. She has also published op-ed pieces with a range of outlets including African Arguments, The Conversation, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Review of African Political Economy Blog.
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