Transitional justice, as a process and set of mechanisms designed to address human rights violations of the past, is a project of transformation. Designed to deal with legacies of past wrongs, transitional justice ideally aims to address their root causes, to adjudicate social and institutional responsibilities, to transform the institutional contexts and power relations that enabled human rights violations to take place, to restore, repair, or facilitate new relationships and to promote national unity and reconciliation. Now an established policy response to the end of civil war, authoritarian regimes or occupation, transitional justice has been the focus of scholarly attention for long enough to have warranted a critical turn, both in terms of the way transitional justice is theorized (Corradetti, Eisikovits, and Rotondi 2015; Hirsch 2012) and the way in which it is implemented and experienced in practice. Examples of such critiques include accusations of imposition of western norms that are not culturally meaningful in some contexts, of the dominance of legal approaches to justice at the expense of the restorative and symbolic, of its instrumentalization by the powerful for the consolidation of authority or privilege, and of limited evidence that it actually has a positive impact on justice and peace (see, e.g., Iliff 2012; Leebaw 2008; Pouligny 2005). These critiques, and others like them, touch on a central issue, which is itself under-discussed: that of resistance to transitional justice. Whilst there is an increasing body of work which focuses on negotiations of transitional justice, contestations over its practice and the refusal of individuals and states to participate in transitional justice for a variety of reasons (see, e.g., Burgis-Kasthala 2013; Diaz 2008; Subotić 2009), very little of this work is dedicated specifically to investigations of the phenomenon and concept of resistance as such.
There is thus an absence of work that brings together given theories and studies of resistance (in other contexts) and transitional justice studies. This is a missed opportunity because such work can help us to understand and to analyze what happens when people disagree over the terms of transitional justice, when and how such disagreement might in fact constitute resistance, and what this can tell us about subjects such as power and legitimacy, which are currently at the heart of many studies in the field of transitional justice. While the objects, forms, and actors of resistance may differ between the articles, there is a series of crosscutting themes that enable us to reflect in greater depth on the phenomenon of resistance to transitional justice. Drawing on varied case studies on Bahrain, Cambodia, and Tunisia, and engaging with theoretical debates such as the role of power in resistance, how we can identify different acts as resistance, and the motivations of the actors who engage in such acts, the articles published in this section of Conflict and Society, each contribute to developing a new avenue for research in and on the field of transitional justice.
In the scholarship on other contexts, say studies of military occupation, colonial rule, or totalitarian domination, resistance has been granted much closer and normatively nuanced attention. Resistance, that is, as an alternative to collaboration, as heroic and defiant quand même, as a matter of moral freedom and human dignity (see, e.g., Gottlieb 1983; Sebald 2003; Todorov 1996), or as a matter of the subaltern resisting a powerful oppressor and aimed at progressive change, in particular as part of a collective and public action (Fletcher 2001). Current scholarly interests in the phenomenology and topic of resistance is evident not only in the emergence of an interdisciplinary field of resistance studies,2 but also in a rich and far-reaching anthropological literature that captures the subtlety of socially subdued or everyday and individual resistances, namely, “unlikely forms of resistance, subversions rather than large-scale collective insurrections, small or local resistances not tied to the overthrow of systems or even to ideologies of emancipation” (Abu-Lughod 1990: 41; see also Ong  and the classic references by Scott [1985, 1990]). These studies of resistance by anthropologists have significantly influenced the way in which research on resistance has been, and is being, approached in general. Through such work the dichotomy between the subaltern/powerless and the oppressor/powerful has been disarticulated with analyses, inter alia, of resistance as discursive strategy (Jansen 2000; Lilja 2013) or diagnostic of power (Abu-Lughod 1990) and not least have served as the locus for rethinking agency unhinged from its liberal undercurrents. These analytical frames for the study of resistance(s) have been complemented by work in other disciplines, such as geography and international law, that examines the subjective nature of any definition of what counts as resistance, highlighting again a fluid set of lines between powerful and powerless and demonstrating how resistance itself can be co-opted and contain elements of that which it resists (see, e.g., Jones, Bernath, and Rubli 2013; Pile 1997; Rajagopal 2003).
If the unforgiving survivors understood more about the background of the perpetrators, or about what ideals and values really count; if they did not confuse forgetting with forgiving; if they were more capable of managing their anger; if they thought more rationally about their own good or the good of the nation, then they would try to forgive or let go of their resentment and engage more constructively in the process of reconciliation. Relentless, backward-looking resentment must be the sign of some kind of moral failure or irrationality on behalf of its holder.(Brudholm and Rosoux 2009: 35–36)
Bringing such insights to bear on the literature of transitional justice we can begin to contrast the concern with “spoilers” of transitional justice processes with an appreciation, for example, of changing locations of power, fluid lines between the supposedly “powerful” and “powerless,” and many “resistances” that are difficult to clearly identify and capture. The scholarly promise of “rethinking” resistance along these lines formed the starting point of the workshop that brought these articles together. Each one is written from a different disciplinary perspective but common to all is an assumption that reflecting on resistance in contexts of political violence and transition, either following a war, authoritarian regime, or occupation, will provide an alternative entry point for analyzing and interrogating the politics and morality of transitional justice. Thus all the articles speak to a central question: what can we learn about conceptualizing and researching resistance when we take as an entry point experiences of violence and interventions designed to acknowledge, address, and repair such harms? This is made possible as a project by looking beyond the “standard” approach to resistance and transitional justice, which holds that those who have something to lose from the process will oppose it, toward other ways of understanding the presence of resistance and what it can tell us. This could be in terms of highlighting issues over the perceived legitimacy of the process (Julie Bernath and Sandra Rubli, this section; Mikael Baaz and Mona Lilja, this section), competing understandings of peace and justice (Briony Jones, this section), and modes of governance that aim to depoliticize and manage revolutionary contexts (Corinna Mullin and Ian Patel, this section; Ciara O’Loughlin, this section). Such frames nuance the discussion, which has been dominated by dichotomies between those who “buy in” to the transitional process and those who seek to “spoil” it (Sriram 2012). These articles point toward new avenues of disciplinary conversation—in these cases between political science, law, anthropology, and geography—which can make important contributions to the literature on transitional justice in and beyond the academy.
Each article complements this broader discussion with reference, in varying degrees, to theoretical debates and to empirical work on case studies. These cover questions such as: What is resistance? Who resists? Why do they resist? In order to answer these questions, the articles engage with a series of framing topics: the histories of resistance and how they interact with or inform resistance to transitional justice (Mullin and Patel); how changes in power relations produced by a transition affect perceptions of resistance and the legitimacy of actors who resist transitional justice (Jones: Bernath and Rubli); the relevance of normative contestations and of contested norms of justice to resistance in times of transition (Bernath and Rubli); whether we should understand resistance differently in times of transition, on a normative and/or conceptual level (Jones); what sources and intentions can be tied to acts of resistance (Baaz and Lilja; O’Loughlin); and the methodological challenges and insights that are part of research on such a topic (all articles in this section). The section taken as a whole raises doubts over whether it is ever possible to define in an objective sense what we name as resistance. The eventual impossibility is perhaps not to be decried. At least, according to the philosopher Howard Caygill our thinking about resistance should itself “resist the pressure of concept-formation, of reducing the practices of resistance to a single concept amenable to legitimation and appropriation by the very state-form that it began by defying” (Caygill 2013: 6). Indeed, we see in the work presented here that it is difficult sometimes to identify what counts as resistance, and furthermore that we as researchers must be alert to understanding the position of the actor who labels another as “resistor.” This relationship (between the actor as “resistor” and the actor as identifier of “resistance”) is positioned in broader contexts of geopolitics, liberal triumphalism, and the micropolitics of the empirical cases discussed. Despite these theoretical and methodological challenges the collection argues strongly for a more developed research agenda on resistance and transitional justice. Through the prism of resistance we can understand the unfolding of the power relations that influence how transitional justice processes play out on the ground, we can learn more about the discourses that label certain actors and acts as “legitimate” in the transition period and beyond, we can learn more about how transitional justice may be used as a political tool rather than a technical exercise, and we can have a greater understanding of the different visions of peace and justice that may be present in a society undergoing transition.
The interdisciplinary conversation taking place in this section reinforces and adds to the already established critical turn of transitional justice scholarship. What it captures is not only a sense of the inevitability of resistance, but a heuristic position that such resistance may be valuable and legitimate as part of the negotiations over how to deal with a violent past, how to secure justice, and how to promote reconciliation. Despite the aforementioned recent “turn,” all the articles here argue that there is more to the phenomenon of resistance than transitional justice scholarship has been able to accommodate. Hence, we hope that the articles will inspire further research on resistance to transitional justice, such as historically contextualizing acts identified as resistance, asking whether the “spoilers” are really what they seem, and using resistance as an entry point to locating power relations and struggles over the legitimacy of transitional justice mechanisms and objectives. This is vital if transitional justice scholars wish to contribute in a meaningful way to debates over what interests and whose voices transitional justice processes serve. A focus on resistance to transitional justice refuses to take for granted the legal, moral, or normative claims of transitional justice entrepreneurs and thus has something unique and important to contribute.
www.swisspeace.org. This research project was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation from 2012 to 2015.
Abu-LughodLila. 1990. “The Romance of Resistance Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women.” American Ethnologist 17 no. 1: 41–55.
BrudholmThomas. 2009. “On the Advocacy of Forgiveness after Mass Atrocities.” Pp. 124–153 in The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocities: Interdisciplinary Perspectives ed. T. Brudholm and T. Cushman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
BrudholmThomas and Valérie Rosoux. 2009. “The Unforgiving: Reflections on Resistance to Forgiveness after Atrocity.” Law and Contemporary Problems 72: 33–49.
Burgis-KasthalaMichelle. 2013. “Defining Justice during Transition? International and Domestic Contestations over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 7: 497–517.
DiazCatalina. 2008. “Challenging Impunity from Below: The Contested Ownership of Transitional Justice in Colombia.” Pp. 189–216 in Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change ed. K. McEvoy and L. McGregor. Oxford: Hart.
FletcherRobert. 2001. “What Are We Fighting For? Rethinking Resistance in a Pewenche Community in Chile.” Journal of Peasant Studies 28 no. 3: 37–66.
HamberBrandon and Richard A. Wilson. 2002. “Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-Conflict Societies.” Journal of Human Rights 1 no. 1: 35–53.
IliffAndrew R. 2012. “Root and Branch: Discourses of ‘Tradition’ in Grassroots Transitional Justice” International Journal of Transitional Justice 6: 253–273.
JansenStef. 2000. “Victims, Underdogs and Rebels: Discursive Practices of Resistance in Serbian Protest.” Critique of Anthropology 20 no. 4: 393–419.
McEvoyKieran and Lorna McGregor. 2008. “Transitional Justice from Below: An Agenda for Research, Policy and Praxis.” Pp. 1–14 in Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change ed.K. McEvoy and L. McGregor. Oxford: Hart.
PileSteven. 1997. “Introduction: Opposition, Political Identities and Spaces of Resistance.” Pp. 1–32 in Geographies of Resistance ed. S. Pile and M. Keith. London: Routledge;
PoulignyBeatrice. 2005. “The Forgotten Dimensions of ‘Transitional Justice’ Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts.” Paper presented at the Global JusticeLocal Legitimacy International Conference at the University of Amsterdam in January.
- Export Citation
)| false . Pouligny, Beatrice 2005. “ The Forgotten Dimensions of ‘Transitional Justice’ Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts.” Paper presented at the Global Justice, Local Legitimacy International Conference at the University of Amsterdam in January.
SriramChandra L. 2012. “Post-Conflict Justice and Hybridity in Peacebuilding: Resistance or Cooptation?” Pp. 58–72 in Hybrid Forms of Peace: From Everyday Agency to Post-Liberalism ed. O. Richmond and A. Mitchell. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
ThomsonSusan. 2011. “Whispering Truth to Power: The Everyday Resistance of Rwanda Peasants to Post-Genocide Reconciliation.” African Affairs 110 no. 440: 439–456.