16 Sep Transitional Justice Symposium: On Transitional Justice
[Fionnuala Ní Aoláin is a Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School and the Queen’s University of Belfast School of Law and since 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.]
Among the many titles and honorifics she holds Ruti Teitel should be given another – namely, that of undisputed matriarch of the transitional justice field. Her book Transitional Justice is an undoubted masterpiece. This book was significant and important when it was first published, and it has shaped two further decades of transitional justice and related research. It has decades of further influence ahead of it.
I first encountered Transitional Justice in Belfast in 2001. Northern Ireland was emerging from its long and painful conflict, its political leaders and public having broadly accepted the Good Friday/Belfast Peace Agreement. But the peace agreement like many others, was not the end of the conversation about the conflict, but only the beginning of a raw exposure to decades of loss, grief, harm and violation by both state and non-state actors. Academics and policy-makers alike were struggling to find a vocabulary and conceptual framework to address grievance and justice claims. Decades had been spent claim-making mostly in traditional human rights fora, including litigation to the European Court of Human Rights, some governmental Commissions of Inquiry, independent inquiries by community groups, and some prosecutions for violations committed during the conflict. But the claims, and counter-claims about the scale of the violations, the limitations of existing discourses make clear that the need for fresh thinking and new approaches was evident. With two of my long-standing collaborators Professors Colm Campbell and Christine Bell, deeply inspired by Ruti’s book we imagined new and innovative ways to address long-standing grievance in post-conflict Northern Ireland. The institutional outcome was the creation of Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, and the intellectual fruit was decades of scholarly and policy work that crisscrosses peace-building, bespoke transitional justice, political settlement, and conflict management. This vignette speaks to the global spread of Ruti’s book, its tenacity and hold in particular places, and its resonance in conflicts and contexts she might not have imagined while penning it.
Beyond, the intellectual inspiration and the key insights of the book, Ruti’s Transitional Justice has traveled across jurisdictions, Ruti too has traveled over the past two decades. Her signature generosity deserves as much recognition as her book. She came to Belfast in 2004 for the first time and continues to visit with our small group of scholars and practitioners pushing the limits and the challenges of transitional justice thinking and practice to this day. Transitional Justice continues to inspire and motivate generations of doctoral students and researchers, not always because they agree with it, but because it provides such key stepping off points to evaluate how societies moving away from systematic violence and repression can do so. What has particularly inspired me about Ruti’s intellectual work, and the opening provided by this book, is a deep curiosity about next steps, an openness to new directions, and willing to hear profound disagreement and deep engagement with the problems of deep-seated change when systematic harm precedes it.
Transitional Justice still remains one of the forceful challenges of our time, despite the increasing unwillingness of States to countenance it, and their artfulness in deflecting it. From the killing and destruction of north-east Syria and Iraq, to Libya, Mali and even to the nascent conversations in the United States about reparations and racial justice — how to move societies forward in the midst of deep grievance about the past is a profoundly vexing question. These questions take on renewed complexity in an age of nationalistic vitriol, populism, human rights backsliding and revisionism. But justice claims do not expire or extinguish so easily even when facing an onslaught of resistance. Moreover, the limits of justice, the outer limits of what is possible continue to vex us all, captured in the janus faced image of justice that so distinctly pervades Ruti’s book. Transitional justice (book and idea) will be with us for a long time because both are needed to marshal the deep-seated need for acknowledgment, settlement, remedy and resolution in violent and repressive societies. Transitional Justice deserved all the recognition it gets at its twentieth anniversary and some of us are very glad to have had this book with us on our own transitional and justice journeys.