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This piece explores and critiques the project of transitional justice. It has been more than a quarter of a century since transitional justice burst onto the global stage. Over the years it has come to be billed as a panacea for addressing deeply embedded social and political dysfunction after periods of mass repression and violence. Many theorists and policy makers have argued that it is a key bridge to sustainable peace, democracy and human rights. But the historical record is not clear about a direct causal relationship between transitional justice mechanisms and specific outcomes in post-conflict societies. In some cases, truth commissions, criminal prosecutions and other transitional justice interventions appear to have given society a chance at a new and hopeful beginning. In others, conflicts have either re-emerged or been exacerbated. Which begs the question, is transitional justice the appropriate vehicle for achieving these goals? If it does not always lead to positive outcomes, why not? Are there conceptual problems and theoretical deficiencies in how we make sense of justice and transitions that account for the failures? Or is it the translation of transitional justice norms into practice that is wanting?

The big question is this: Does transitional justice have a future, given its mixed record? This piece focuses on the meaning of the concept, how its application has evolved and whether it is sustainable as theory and praxis. How defined is the concept of transitional justice? What exactly does it entail and what does it seek to achieve? Are political democracy, the rule of law and human rights – the pivots of liberalism – the desired end results implicit in transitional justice approaches? If so, why should liberalism be the germ of the new post-conflict society? If transitional justice promotes liberalism, who gains and who loses if it succeeds? How would liberalism address deeply rooted cultural, colonial and ethnic rivalries and inequities? Would structures of deep inequity be vanquished by these norms? Or does this conception of transitional justice exacerbate conflicts as it seeks to transform societies? Who pays for transformation? What about market forces and norms – do they fuel or contain conflict? If existing transitional justice concepts are inadequate to recover, or reclaim, societies sickened by violence and repression, are there alternatives? If so, how do those alternatives compare with present conceptualizations of transitional justice? Should the term ‘transitional justice’ itself be abandoned?

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International Journal of Transitional Justice

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