Book Review: Gender in Transitional Justice

Gender in Transitional Justice, Hampshire, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
Edited by Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Ruth Stanley
Reviewed by Simon Robins, University of York

Whilst transitional justice has become a standard lens with which to approach societies emerging from conflict and political violence, it remains rooted in a prescriptive global practice in which gender issues are acknowledged but rarely central. This edited volume seeks to summarise thinking around gender in transitional justice and does an excellent job of confronting both the possibilities of and the current constraints on a gendered approach.

The best part of the book is the introduction, which masterfully surveys both the limitations of current practice and the huge promise for societies addressing a violent past. The potential lies in challenging not just the legacies of acts of violence but of the structural violence that facilitates violations against women and deepens their impact. Contemporary transitional justice is constrained by the narrow range of instruments (trials, truth commissions) defined by mimetic practice that limits the normative frame of an intervention. Asking what women’s goals are of transition challenges the liberal paradigm in which violations of civil and political rights are elevated over the social, cultural and economic with a demand for a transformative approach to transition, in which traditional social relations are questioned. The radicalism of such an agenda is that transitional justice – and potentially the broader transition – becomes not something that unfolds exclusively in the metropolitan institutions of liberal proceduralism, but that affects the everyday spaces, such as the home, in which violations and discrimination occur.

Transitional justice has long been critiqued for its legalism and emphasis on retribution.

Constrained by an agenda defined by international legal instruments, gendering such postconflict justice has meant ensuring that violations experienced by women, most notably sexual violence, can be prosecuted under international law. Such issues are raised in two chapters, discussing respectively the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the Extraordinary Chambers of Cambodia. Ní Aoláin’s discussion of the ICC demonstrates the skewed focus of global transitional justice on trials, despite evidence that victims, and in particular women, value reparation above other measures. This is recognised through discussion of the ICC Trust Fund for Victims, but the chapter neglects to acknowledge the massive disparity in the relative funding of the retributive and restorative elements of the ICC process that is clear evidence that the retributive focus reduces women to their violation, rather than acknowledging the broader context in which violations occur and in which rehabilitation of victims must take place.

Sigsworth and Valji engage with the fact that in South Africa violence against women has continued across the transition, demonstrating that sexual violence does not begin or end with conflict and has indeed worsened since the end of apartheid. These continuities of violence challenge the understandings of ‘violation’ and even of ‘transition’, as privileged by transitional justice processes. (When, for example, is a rape ‘political’ enough to be addressed under the remit of transitional justice?) The authors discuss the contribution to the epidemic of violence of a crisis of masculinity provoked by the end of the political conflict, and seek to reconceptualise transitional justice on the basis of women’s lived experience, acknowledging the intimate connections between transitional justice and gender justice. More than any contribution in the book, this reveals the profundity of the critique of transitional justice practice that emerges from a gendered analysis of a post-conflict society.

One significant threat to a gender-sensitive transitional justice is that transitional processes are almost always steered by male-dominated domestic and international elites. This fact lends importance to the volume’s discussions of women’s agency in post-conflict societies.

Mageza-Barthel studies the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide to discuss how women mobilised to advocate for both the consideration of sexual offences as the most serious of crimes and for a review of matrimonial law that could address property issues. This latter demonstrates how female survivors are often most affected by the secondary social and economic impacts of violations. An alternative approach to understanding agency of the marginalised is shown in the chapter by von Wahl, who uses the tools of social movement research to study the failure of gay men to mobilise for acknowledgement and restitution for their persecution in Nazi Germany.

Both studies serve to emphasise that, given the disempowerment of victims, elite control of the transitional agenda can only be challenged by processes that empower victims as political actors, again emphasising a transformative agenda.

An example of the mechanisms of transitional justice and liberal peacebuilding defining the analysis is a chapter by Porter discussing Timor-Leste’s process, described as a ‘genuine attempt’ (236) to integrate gender justice into transition. This analysis is typical both of some elements of this volume and of transitional justice scholarship more generally in that such conclusions are drawn based on the outputs of transitional justice mechanisms and elite commentaries on them: there is little empirical engagement with the women of Timor. For a truly transformative transitional justice to emerge in both theory and praxis it is necessary for the discipline to transcend its legal origins and produce an evidence-base prioritising the views of those most affected by transition. A radical approach to gender issues in transition has the potential to drive a transitional justice that can aid in the transformation of post-conflict societies, but it must be driven not by the abstract prescriptions of international lawyers, but by the needs of survivors. This book shows a clear route to such an innovative practice, but also contains chapters that prioritise the legal and the institutional over the everyday needs of women.

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