Book Review: Grassroots Activism and the Evolution of Transitional Justice: The Families of the Disappeared

Grassroots Activism and the Evolution of Transitional Justice: The Families of the Disappeared. By Iosif Kovras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

By Eleni Christodoulou

The mobilization of the relatives of the disappeared to uncover the truth about their family members is at the core of this fascinating book. Iosif Kovras focuses on an under-researched aspect of Transitional Justice (TJ) – the families of the disappeared – and seeks to demonstrate how their actions have shaped transitional justice discourses and institutional practices while revealing the numerous constraints and challenges they face. He argues that the ‘justice cascade’ (Sikkink, 2011) cannot be properly understood without first understanding the ‘forensic cascade’ and that so far scholars have failed to adequately explore the specific case of the families of the disappeared or have treated them as a homogeneous group. Indeed as Saunders and Cornish (2014) put it: ‘[t]he bodies of the dead… have long and unpredictable afterlives’ (4) and families and friends of the missing cannot reach closure until they discover the truth. Kovras brings his comparative expertise, as well as his mixed methods approach to the field of TJ through this interesting, timely and insightful book.

The book is comprised of three main parts that differ extensively in length: Part I is made up of a single chapter that focuses on the methodological and theoretical innovations of the book; Part II comprises three chapters offering historical and global perspectives, including a narration of the powerful and transformative story of the Argentinian ‘Mothers’ and ‘Grandmothers’, a landmark case Kovras refers to as the ‘Big Bang’ of transitional justice (77), as well as a genealogy of the forensic epistemic community. The third and final part is comprised of five chapters, one for each case study and a concluding chapter that offers five lessons for TJ. The four case studies of Chile, Cyprus, Lebanon and South Africa seek to show how variations in TJ policies occur and explain why some countries are ‘caught in silence’ (3) whilst others are proactive and are ‘successful’ in bringing perpetrators to account with families feeling empowered to speak on behalf of the victims as ‘agents with legal rights’ (xi).

When in their 2010 review, Thoms, Ron and Paris argued for ‘more systematic and comparative analysis’ so as ‘to move from ‘’faith-based’’ to ‘’fact-based’’ discussions of transitional justice impacts’ (329), this was probably the type of work they had in mind. The book’s greatest strength, beyond its thematic focus on the families of the disappeared, is its rich empirical contribution, steering away from the one-case study model and offering a convincing case for a mixed methods approach through successful implementation. It provides an impressively comprehensive treatment of the families of the disappeared on a global scale and elucidates their role in shaping norms, political agendas and institutions across different political and geographic contexts. It does so by taking into account the role of timing and sequencing and offering ‘a more dynamic picture of truth recovery’ (5) than existing quantitative approaches. Kovras makes a convincing case for combining large-n analyses from databases with comparative small-n case-studies (the latter analysis drawing from a range of interviews).

According to the author, the database that he has created is ‘reliable, consistent and easily replicable’ (26) and any shortcomings in the sources the database draws on are not significant as the purpose of his database is not to make causal inferences but rather to map global trends. The issue raised though is then how this fits with his overarching questions that do have a causal nature and the relevant causal inferences he makes when attempting to answer them. Nevertheless, the database analysis advances our knowledge of the geographical, historical and temporal aspects of the disappeared as well as the transitional justice preferences in different parts of the world. The ability to identify geographical and temporal patterns renders it is also an appropriate way to minimise bias in the selection of case studies.

Findings show that the two tools or mechanisms most commonly adopted to deal with the disappeared in post-conflict societies are that of amnesty laws (34 percent) and exhumations (30 percent), followed by truth commissions and trials. As it is used by almost a third of the societies studied, exhumation deserves more attention Kovras convincingly argues. Exhumations are also useful, he contends, as they can indicate ‘the effectiveness of transitional justice policies’ (38). Kovras develops three broad policy preferences or levels of truth recovery: ‘institutionalised silence’ (only amnesties adopted); ‘forensic truth recovery’ (focus is on exhumations) and ‘broader truth recovery’ (comprehensive approaches including truth commissions and trials). These constitute the analytical framework of truth recovery of the disappeared that the author puts forward in his attempt to explain variations in countries’ adoption of these tools and how, when and why the same country may move from one level to the other. The type of country transition/settlement are presented vis-à-vis one of these three policy preferences in a useful table, Table 2.1. (33, though it is not clear to the reader where South Africa fits in and the reasons why it was not included). A core finding is that the ‘form of violence responsible for the creation of the problem of the missing’ – so whether it was post-authoritarian like Chile or post-conflict like Lebanon – ‘largely determines the type of truth recovery’ as well as its sequencing (43, emphasis in original). Another key finding is that three conditions need to be met in order for forensic truth to become a reality: a minimum level of stability and security; properly designed policy; and the depoliticization of the issue of the missing i.e. moving away from political deliberations and framing it in humanitarian terms instead.

Kovras rightly raises the issue of treating victims’ groups as homogeneous without distinguishing, for example, whether their needs and interests are the same. It would be even more interesting if Kovras went a step further to discuss divergences (or even disagreements) within and not just between ‘different victims’ groups’ (20). Another point is that the concept of ‘the families’ is never really tackled. Who counts as ‘the families’? Relatives and families are used interchangeably but does this then not exclude agents and activists such as long-life friends who may fall neither into the relative nor into the family category?

One of the main weaknesses of the book was that while it could do more for beginners in terms of providing information for the purposes of clarification and comprehension, there is a very repetitive tone especially in the first two chapters. For example, certain phrases are repeated in very similar or identical form throughout. The important role of timing in transitional justice and the failure of scholars to adequately research this, is mentioned around a dozen times in just the first 19 pages (and numerous times afterwards). Using this space to include certain basic definitions and typologies of TJ and a deeper engagement with the general literature in the first chapter, might have made this book easier to comprehend for a new student of TJ. One other minor issue is that it would be useful if there was a list of abbreviations to guide the reader when interpreting Figure 2.3. (40).

In addition, on certain occasions the language seems to be more strong than the evidence warrants and the author is quick to make bold claims both in criticising existing literature (whilst offering numerous examples of exceptions in footnotes) as well as in terms of some of the explanations put forward. It also seems rather strange that the author uses the terms ‘missing’ and ‘disappeared’ interchangeably, acknowledges this and explains that disappearance is often used as a generic term that ‘tends to include both missing and enforced disappearance’, only to contradict himself a few pages later on when he criticizes the exact same approach adopted by a widely used database arguing it is a ‘significant conceptual limitation’ and one that ‘is supported neither by the existing legal framework nor by the relevant literature’ (21, footnote 5).

Nevertheless, one should bear in mind that the goals of the book were extremely ambitious, Kovras did an excellent job in bringing them to a fruitful completion and the relatively insignificant shortcomings do not retract from the valuable contribution of the book to the field, rendering it essential reading for (postgraduate) students and scholars of transitional justice.

Georg Eckert Institute, Germany

Oskar, Thomas NT, James Ron and Roland Paris. “State-Level Effects of Transitional Justice: What Do We Know?” International Journal of Transitional Justice 4. No.3 (2010): 329-354.

Sikkink, Kathryn. The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2011.

Saunders, Nicholas J. and Paul Cornish (eds.). “Introduction.” In Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality and Transformation. New York: Routledge, 2014.