The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations
On the Very Idea of Transitional Justice
by Jens David Ohlin
he phrase “transitional justice” has had an amazingly successful career at an early
Popularized as an academic concept in the early 1990s in the aftermath of
apartheid’s collapse in South Africa, the phrase quickly gained traction in a variety of
global contexts, including Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone.
sizeable literature has been generated around it, so much so that one might even call
it a sub-discipline with inter-disciplinary qualities.
Nonetheless, the concept remains
an enigma. It defines the contours of an entire field of intellectual inquiry, yet at the
same time it hides more than it illuminates. No one is exactly sure what it means.
One reason might be its combination of two very different kinds of words in a
single phrase. “Justice” is perhaps the greatest of moral values, with a history that
extends back to the moment man started criticizing the conduct of his fellow man.
It is meant to evoke a universal, normative goal. “Transitional,” on the other hand,
defines a particular situation, an exceptional and limited moment that stands in
contrast to the universal goal. So the second term limits and qualifies the first in
some important way, but how is totally unclear.
Is transitional justice some other
of justice, fundamentally different from
justice during non-transitional moments? Or is it simply
justice, a familiar
end-state that remains elusive because a society has been ripped apart by genocide or
some other ethnic conflict?
If it is the latter, the field is about how to achieve, in a
very pragmatic way, the usual goals of justice in difficult times. If it is the former, the
field fundamentally re-conceives our understanding of justice in the face of radical
One is largely an exercise in social science, the other an exercise in
moral philosophy. The current field of transitional justice straddles this distinction,
and does so, I shall argue, in a somewhat uncomfortable way. Although the concept
now dominates international affairs as an umbrella under which these problems are
investigated, it remains fundamentally misunderstood. Specifically, the term
“transitional justice” betrays a deep tension between two approaches to justice that
goes to the heart of the burgeoning program of international criminal justice.
Jens David Ohlin
is an Associate-in-Law at Columbia University School of Law. Dr. Ohlin
received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University, and his J.D. from Columbia University
School of Law.