Research Theme: Dealing with the Past

The need for societies to ‘deal with’ legacies of systematic human rights violations has become an established feature of interdisciplinary scholarship and praxis in recent decades. However, seeking to understand how we should deal with the past raises a series of fundamental questions which research at the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) considers from a range of disciplinary and methodological perspectives. These questions go beyond the core themes or institutions of transitional justice by addressing questions such as what is the past, why does it matter, and how can it be dealt with either to undo the harms or to deliver accountability. As will be explored below, TJI’s dealing with the past research addresses these questions under the following four headings: Understanding the past, Identifying the Past’s Impact on the Present, Undoing the Past and Accounting for the Past

Understanding the Past

From the late 1970s, transitional justice grew out of political transitions from conflict and dictatorship in southern Europe and South America. In these transitions, the ‘past’ was commonly understood as distinct from the transitional period. However, today, the language and goals of transitional justice are increasingly being applied to an ever-wider range of contexts, including ongoing conflicts, post-colonial settings and even legacies of past violence in liberal democratic states. Given this multiplicity of settings, a core element of dealing with the past research at TJI is exploring how the ‘past’ is understood through sociological explorations of how communities and nations construct, reproduce and shape narratives explaining the past.

In addition to exploring the nature of political transitions, research to understand the past can also entail investigating the nature of the violations that were perpetrated. This research can include:

Identifying the Past’s Impact on the Present

Efforts to deal with the past in transitional states are generally based on assertions that if the past is not addressed it will adversely affect the states’ future. Research at TJI seeks to substantiate this by investigating the ways in which the past’s legacies may endure. These legacies can include

Undoing the Past

Following mass violence, multiple measures may be adopted to reverse or undo the consequences for victims and offenders who were directly affected by the violence. These may include:

As TJI research explores, in seeking to undo the past, these measures may not simply aim to restore the status quo ante, but may instead entail transforming the relationships between the state and citizenry, and between previously antagonistic communities. Such transformations may entail a range of legal and political strategies, such as:

Accounting for the Past

Within the field of transitional justice, dealing with the past is predominantly associated with holding perpetrators accountable for past human rights violations. Demands for accountability often centre on assertions that states are under international legal obligations to deliver truth, justice and reparations. However, in ongoing conflicts or fragile political transitions, these obligations may conflict with states’ duties to establish peace and prevent further violations. Drawing on these tensions, TJI research on accounting for past aims to explore:

The Research Coordinator for Dealing with the Past research is Dr Louise Mallinder.

(Updated January 2011)


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