This is the focus of a new project funded by the human rights programme at CMI.  

Societies emerging from major conflicts face vast human rights challenges. To address these and reduce the violence in both the short and longer term, promoting reconciliation is considered a key priority.

Mechanisms believed to foster reconciliation and halt violence vary from highly institutionalised and formal measures, such as trials and truth commissions, to more informal processes, such as local rituals for conflict resolution. Yet we have relatively little systematic knowledge of the extent to which these mechanisms in fact have the assumed positive effect on reconciliation and violence reduction. This is what we wish to investigate in this research project.

The knowledge deficit in this field persists despite the fact that transitional justice has been a burgeoning research field for the past 20 years, with an explosive growth since the end of the 1990s. The growing interest is rooted in recent trends whereby more and more countries have chosen to address past violence as they transition towards a more peaceful and democratic society. In the international aid community, moreover, transitional justice has turned into a virtual industry as many donors are pouring vast sums of money into developing or supporting various transitional justice mechanisms - without knowing much about the likely effects of their efforts.

There is an assumption in the literature that the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms is necessary in order to bring about reconciliation and violence reduction. Yet this and related assumptions remain mostly untested. For instance, it is sometimes assumed reconciliation and related reduced violence is impossible if one leaves serious crimes committed under the past regime go unpunished. A second assumption is that you cannot found a state based on human rights principles on lies about the past - therefore one needs to seek the "truth" about the past violence. A third assumption is that the deterrence effect that punitive justice may have on violence at the country level also applies to the international level; an assumption which is used to justify the establishment of international tribunals. Given considerable pressures for channelling aid funds into the hot policy area of transitional justice, assumptions such as these currently run the risk of being converted into conventional wisdom. Yet there is little empirical evidence to show that they actually hold when confronted with cross-country, scientific analysis.

Filling the gap

In the proposed research project, we make an effort to bridge at least some of this gap. Our main focus is to understand what effects the various transitional justice mechanisms have on the phenomena of reconciliation and violence in societies emerging from armed conflict and/or repressive rule. Some of the questions we want to address empirically are:

  • Do societies that punish perpetrators or establish truth commissions to address the past, really become more reconciled and less violent than the countries that do not?
  • Is reconciliation and violence reduction dependent on formal mechanisms?
  • In what ways does it matter who sets up these transitional justice mechanisms (local, national or international actors)?
  • Whose opinions on the relative "success" or "failure" of reconciliation efforts should matter when "lessons learned" are being evaluated?

We wish to review how these questions are addressed in the literature, at the level of both theory and method. Our prime focus will be to review the literature in view of critically assessing (a) underlying assumptions, (b) concepts and methods, and (c) results.

Project staff: Elin Skaar (leader), Gloppen, Samset, Schultz, Suhrke