Truth commissions are temporary institutions that are tasked with investigating patterns of political violence under a prior regime as part of a process of political change. In the past, truth commissions were generally seen as a “second best” alternative in contexts where prosecuting past abuses was deemed unrealistic. Today, they are regarded as important tools for pursuing a wide array of goals, from democratization and reconciliation to human rights protection and individual healing. Early scholarship on the development of truth commissions focused on comparative democratization and on typologies that could be used to predict various transitional justice outcomes. More recently, scholars in the field of international relations have undertaken qualitative and quantitative studies in hopes of understanding what is driving the development of truth commissions. However, opinions differ as to the causes, consequences, and moral implications of truth commissions. Some attribute the proliferation of truth commissions to the growing strength of human rights norms and advocacy, whereas others argue that they merely function to manage the balance of power in transitional contexts, or serve as a basis for advancing values such as justice, democracy, and peace. These debates seem to have only intensified as truth commission scholarship continues to grow. One interesting pattern is that a number of scholars, have questioned the effectiveness of truth commissions in satisfying their own claims to investigate the “truth” about past abuses.
Reassessing Truth Commissions
The shift toward transitional justice (TJ)—the use of judicial and nonjudicial means to address systematic human rights atrocities in post-authoritarian and post-civil-conflict states—originated in the modern era with the creation of international tribunals after World War II. The tribunals’ construction demonstrated a drastic change in international norms, shifting responsibility from the state to individual perpetrators. Later, the “third wave of democratization” ushered in a flurry of new efforts in post-authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America, including the addition of truth-telling mechanisms and amnesties to protect perpetrators from prosecution. Since then, several new forms of TJ have been introduced in a variety of post-authoritarian and post-conflict settings, with several academic disciplines aiming to understand the variation in experiences and efficacy of these processes. The uniqueness of this literature lies in the interplay between the scholarship, activists, and practitioners, which has influenced the way the TJ field developed, and ultimately, how it conceptualizes justice. The trajectory of the scholarship has been a shift from normative-exploratory orientations to empirically driven studies. Further, different conceptualizations of justice (i.e., retributive justice, restorative justice, and reparative justice) became associated with specific TJ mechanisms, an association that often determines how their long-term success is judged. Finally, two important, enduring issues for future research to address are: whether, and to what extent, gender is incorporated into the TJ process, and improved methodologies that model the temporal and political dynamics involved in the implementation of TJ and its outcomes.
Gender and Transitional Justice
Maria Martin de Almagro and Philipp Schulz
Transitional justice (TJ) refers to a set of measures and processes that deal with the legacies of human rights abuses and violent pasts, and that seek to aid societies transitioning from violence and conflict toward a more just and peaceful future. Much like the study of armed conflict and peacebuilding more broadly, the study and practice of transitional justice was traditionally silent on gender. Historically, gendered conflict-related experiences and harms have not been adequately addressed by most transitional justice mechanisms, and women in particular have been excluded from the design, conceptualization, and implementation of many TJ processes globally. While political violence perpetrated against men remained at the center of TJ concerns, a whole catalogue of gendered human rights abuses perpetrated primarily against women has largely remained at the peripheries of dominant TJ debates and interventions. Catalyzed by political developments at the United Nations within the realm of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda and by increasing attention to crimes of sexual violence by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), however, the focus in the 2000s has been radically altered to include the treatment of gender in transitional contexts. As such, considerations around gender and sex have increasingly gained traction in TJ scholarship and praxis, to the extent that different justice instruments now seek to engage with gendered harms in diverse ways. Against this background, to the authors review this growing engagement with gender and transitional justice, offering a broad and holistic overview of legal and political developments, emerging trends, and persistent gaps in incorporating gender into the study and practice of TJ. The authors show how gender has been operationalized in relation to different TJ instruments, but the authors also unearth resounding feminist critiques about the ways in which justice is approached, as well as how gender is often conceptualized in limited and exclusionary terms. To this end, the authors emphasize the need for a more sustained and inclusive engagement with gender in TJ settings, drawing on intersectional, queer, and decolonial perspectives to ultimately address the variety of gendered conflict-related experiences in (post)conflict and transitional settings.