Book Review: New Critical Spaces in Transitional Justice. Gender, Art, and Memory

Arnaud Kurze and Christopher K. Lamont, eds. New Critical Spaces in Transitional Justice. Gender, Art, and Memory. Indiana University Press, 2019.

Transitional justice (TJ) is the umbrella term for the judicial, social and political dealing with the aftermath of mass atrocities. Since the end of the Cold War, TJ has become “the fixer for war and authoritarian ills” on a global scale.[1] Ideas such as the rule of law, accountability and the end of impunity have been seen as central for political transitions of post conflict societies towards democratisation imbued with (neo)liberal norms moulding political, social and economic spheres. Yet, with the development and application of TJ concepts on a global scale critics have questioned, in particular, the neoliberal biases, top-down processes and instruments and demanded revisions based on the recognition of hitherto little noticed actors and the multitude of justice concepts. In this vein, the title “New Critical Spaces in Transitional Justice. Gender, Art, and Memory” indicates the intention of the anthology. The chapters of the book aim at presenting “new theoretical and empirical ground for critical transitional justice scholarship” (2). The contributors address art and youth (cyber)activism as well as the political redeployment of truth commissions after transition in the regional contexts of South Africa, Tunisia and Argentina (Part I). This is followed by examples of informal ways of inclusive gender justice in Uganda, normative transformations for gender justice through (trans)national activism in Cambodia and limits of gendering TJ in bottom-up initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Part II) as well as the failure of TJ instruments and availability of adequate (alternative) spaces in countries where violence is still affecting daily life as in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Reasons for the failure of remembering as an essential tool for reconciliation are discussed in the case study of Croatia, an example of regional memory politics, where ethno-nationalist agendas silence the suffering and dying of those who do not fit dominant narratives (Part III).

The readers will not only benefit from the contextualisation of the publication within TJ research and the cross-references in each chapter to others in the book, but also from the concise conclusion indicating necessities for future research. The editors see recognition as a leitmotif of all contributions, providing empirical evidence of neglected actors, spaces and temporalities. By opening up “new justice spaces” (251) in the research field of TJ, the necessities for reconceptualising current dominant approaches become obvious. The editors state that broader approaches with “questions of spatiality, temporality, and power” are essential for “refreshing insights into […] complex processes that aim to move societies beyond a violent and divided past to a more inclusive future.” (252). All chapters of the book offer empirically-supported conceptual interventions into critical discourse and practice.

It should be recalled that questions of gender have been integrated in TJ politics, practice and research in diverse world regions for some decades. Nevertheless, gendered perspectives have often been based on the equation of gender with girls and women, despite theoretical understandings of gender with its close ties to sex(ualitiy) as construction in time and place moulded by various structures of power, dominance and subjectivation. In the publication, introduced here, three authors explicitly address gender issues. Within the frame of this short review, I want to talk about the third part of the book “Civil Society, Gender, and Transitions: Emerging Spaces of Victimhood” and its contributions in broadening perspectives in TJ.

Philipp Schulz attends to the long-lasting misrecognition of male survivors of sexualised gender based violence during conflict. A socially widespread “constructed incompatibility and disjuncture between masculinities and vulnerabilities, and manhood and victimhood” results in the failure of (non)judicial mechanisms and instruments to cope “with male sexual violence survivors” (95). Although, the recognition of gender-based sexual harms experienced by men, as well as harms inflicted on genders outside heteronormative orders, has increased at the international level (e.g. UN & ICC), continuities of patriarchal orders and heteronormative legal systems hinder the development of formal solutions in national and local contexts. Hence, informal ways of justice at grassroots levels gain importance for survivors of sexual violence, as Schulz’s case study on Northern Uganda shows. In doing so, Schulz reminds researchers to broaden their approaches.

Katharina Behmer traces the process from silencing sexual and gender-based violence against women during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) to acknowledging such forms of violence and persecuting perpetrators by the ongoing Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The process of recognition has been initiated and accelerated by the interplay of local activism and transnational advocacy during the times of growing awareness of sexual and gender based violence in international normative frameworks. Similar to other patriarchal societies, women in Cambodia suffer not only as victims of gender-based crimes, they are also expected to keep silent about their experiences. Against the background of such internalised social norms, it remains questionable, as Behmer states, “if the legal norm change will trigger a change in social and traditional gender norms and thus impact the occurrence and prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence in the present and further contribute to gender equality.” (129) With this scepticism, she touches on a broadly discussed topic by radical feminists, who doubt that legal approaches will lead to inclusive and transformative forms of gender justice without tackling structural injustices and their intertwinement with social norms.

Caterina Bonora analyses the bottom-up impacts and effects of the regional truth commission RECOM across post-Yugoslav space, initiated by human rights NGOs from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Participatory approaches, which aim at including a range of local actors, can no longer be seen as outcomes of alternative, critical scholarship and practice; they have also been promoted by powerful international institutions for some time now. Therefore, it is crucial to take a closer look at their conceptualisation and practices. With the two definitions of inclusiveness – procedural and conceptual – ­and their operationalisation, Bonora develops a useful tool to evaluate such bottom-up approaches. Her analytic tool brings to light in which ways bottom-up initiatives foster and limit inclusive justice processes in post conflict societies. In the case of RECOM it can be said that many ‘grassroots people’ were involved, but “the public was immediately confronted with a ready-made solution – a regional truth commission – [that] foreclosed the spontaneous emergence of other ideas.” (149). Moreover, as women’s groups in RECOM have pointed out, a focus on individual responsibilities obscures the structural dimensions of injustice. Thus, it is not sufficient to only include women and further marginalized groups in procedures, it is also crucial to include them in the drafting and implementation of programmes.

In conclusion, it can be said that the three gender-related contributions give insights in the complex realities of gendering TJ in past and present due to continuities of heteronormative and patriarchal norms in transition contexts. However, these and the other contributions presented in the book raise further questions: Is it possible to develop TJ concepts, understood as “floating signifiers”, (18) which go beyond neoliberal frames? If so, is this followed by the inclusion of a great variety of local actors in processes and the promotion of open polylogues on gender, social, political and economic justice? Would this also include analyses of global, regional and local power structures at the heart of theory, research and programmes concerning the causes of violence, the impacts of power dimensions during and after conflicts? Finally, does the latter not demand a rethinking of TJ on the basis of post/decolonial theory and as one essential tool foster reflexions among all actors to unlearn privileges as well as oppression?

Katharina Hoffmann,
Independent scholar, Germany

[1] Ni´ Aoláin, Fionnuala. “Southern Voices in Transitional Justice: A Critical Reflection on Human Rights and Transition”. In Law’s Ethical, Global, and Theoretical Contexts: Essays in Honour of William Twining, edited by Upendra Bax, Christopher McCrudden & Abdul Paliwala. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2015, 73-89, 73.