Book review: Paul Gready and Simon Robins (eds.) From Transitional to Transformative Justice

Paul Gready and Simon Robins (eds.) From Transitional to Transformative Justice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Paul Gready’s previous work has highlighted the problems associated with the essentializing of identity. For instance, as he pointed out in Political Transition: Politics and Cultures, the coming together of memory and ethnic identity can give rise to a self-reproducing politics in which ‘identities can be competitive and fragmentary, dominated by grievance, history, a sense of injustice, and the pursuit of recognition and resources’ (2003, p.4). As he and many other critics, supporters, opponents and fellow-travellers of transitional justice would go on to argue, quasi-legal inquiries, truth and reconciliation commissions, top-down and/or bottom-up information retrieval processes all tend to reify historical memories and valorize exclusionary and often ethno-centric narratives. As an alternative, Gready has consistently argued for the prioritization of the sociology and politics of transitions and a focus on the impact of structural disparities and socio-economic inequalities.

This volume, co-edited with Simon Robbins, takes up those themes by (re)framing transitional justice as synonymous with what they call transformative justice. The latter borrows from Johann Galtung’s  notions of ‘positive’ peace but incorporates a reflexive and democratic dynamic missing from the work within peace-building studies. As Gready explains in the Introduction, transformative justice is associated with a ‘transformative change that emphasizes local agency and resources, the prioritization of process rather than preconceived outcomes, and the challenging of unequal and intersecting power relations and structures of exclusion at both local and global levels’ (p.2). This approach overturns the historic focus of transitional justice on the state, which, in Gready and Robbins’s view, militated against ‘the engagement of affected populations’ (p.35). One could go further and suggest that the state-centric approach could, in certain situations where ‘the state’ was not the main perpetrator of violence, such as Northern Ireland, create a structural bias that worked to endorse ethno-religious memory politics. It is a shame that the discussion of ‘the state’ takes place within the well-trodden ground of the liberal peace-building critique (Oliver Richmond supplies an endorsement on the back cover) and ignores the wealth of treatments of the state in other political science and historical literatures.

The ambiguity, however, does give rise to a wide range of high-quality chapters that engage and intersect with the limitations of the specific lens of transitional justice. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin argues that the problem is exacerbated by what she avers is the fact that apart from ‘a few notable exceptions the acknowledged founders of the transitional justice field are men, the institutional edifices and structures are male-dominated, and women have primarily intervened on those questions and issues traditionally coded “female” (p.151). Her sober findings are that despite gender mainstreaming, the ‘add and stir’ approach has not successfully incorporated gender nuance or reflexivity (p.153). As Chulani Kodikara demonstrates in her chapter on impunity and everyday sexual violence in Sri Lanka, the consequence of this type of methodological, structural or ideological oversight is the continued silencing or effacing of women’s experiences from the outset. The rectification of these will not be easy: ‘It is a struggle that has to be waged simultaneously at many different levels: legal and social; state and community, from top-down and bottom-up’ (p.214).

To extend Ní Aoláin’s metaphor, the ‘baked-in’ nature of transitional justice theorizing and practice creates unintended consequences or after-effects. As Laura Trajber Waisbich and Vera Schattan P. Coelho explain, the Brazilian case reveals that the traditional omissions from transitional justice continued through the process of democratic consolidation. The authors describe this, in a subheading, as belatedness. In Freudian terms, belatedness refers to an acting out of (traumatic) responses at later dates and involves a time-lag or deferral. The authors suggest that in the absence of overarching transitional justice mechanisms and the residual presence of authoritarianism, a degree of progress has nonetheless occurred: ‘despite all the limitations, justice (and mostly a form of social justice) has been advancing elsewhere, outside the traditional transitional justice frame’ (p.222).

Cumulatively, the book represents a profound challenge to the way we think about transitional justice and calls into question the very utility of the term itself. It is, therefore, somewhat strange to be reminded by Pamina Firchow and Roger Mac Ginty in their chapter that transitional justice is not a homogenous discipline and that ‘a number of authors have engaged with bottom-up perspectives’ (p.265). At this point in the debate, this is tantamount to stating that all cats are dark at night. In fact, Firchow and Mac Ginty’s chapter itself points to the shortcomings of the model: For instance, they argue that that people are not ‘yearning … for retrospective attention to justice … [They] are concerned with the here and now’ (p.278).

Marina Sitrin reaches similar conclusions in her chapter on the strategy of escrache (essentially holding protests outside of perpetrators’ houses or in their neighbourhoods involving calls for justice, recognition and education) by the Daughters and Sons for Identity and Justice and Against Silencing and Forgetting (HIJOS) in Argentina. These protests are intensely social and involve the argument that ‘trials are not enough’ (p.291). The chapter’s arguments chime with those of Anna Reading’s, who explores restitution in a case of institutional abuse at the Parramatta Girls’ Home, in Australia. Reading’s detailed empirical work points to the conclusions that restitutions must be seen as an ‘assemblage of practices that involve unfinished processes and interventions that operate across multiple domains’ (p.236).

Robbins takes up these ideas in his Conclusion, suggesting that a ‘more transformative understanding of justice can be defined as emerging from social practice, rather than framed against an ideal of justice’ (p.301). It is at this point, if it were not clear beforehand, that the reader is left wondering if, indeed, we are still talking about transitional justice. Yet, as he points out, there is little hope of abandoning the paradigm given the deep roots it has laid within academia and political institutions. Indeed, the insidious nature of that growth is emblematized in the fact that even within a critical volume such as this, chapters like that of Firchow and Mac Ginty’s can be read as potential new avenues for transitional justice to explore.

The volume does not develop in any great detail the history of boosterism that underpins much of the transitional justice paradigm’s success. Although several chapters point to the narrow evidential base on which transitional justice interventions work, there are no chapters on the relationship of transitional justice and its uptake and representation either in academia, the media or political classes more generally. Apart from those types of problematizations, it is difficult to see transformative justice not becoming simply subsumed within the transitional justice paradigm. Despite those concerns, this is a volume that is required reading for anyone interested in the topic. Framed at the level of the researcher, the volume will also be accessible to the undergraduate and reasonably informed practice-based reader.


Ulster University

November 2022