Transitional Justice


What is the meaning of justice in the wake of massive injustice?  This question forms the subject matter of transitional justice, a topic which, over the past generation, has pre-occupied the human rights community as well as tens of societies facing up to the past injustices of genocides, civil wars, dictatorships, and other major violations of human rights.  How can justice be done while building sustainable peace?

The international community’s dominant answers to these questions have been legal ones, focusing on the rule of law and the prosecution of arch-violators.  Pride of place has been given to the International Criminal Court, for instance.  Too often overlooked, though, has been the role of civil society, including everything from ngos to religious organizations to indigenous communities, who, in country after country, amount not merely to yet another “variable that matters” but rather have shaped the very character of the debate over justice.  It has often been civil society actors, for instance, who have stressed concepts like reconciliation and restorative justice. 

The Center will be exploring the promise of a more holistic paradigm of justice through comparative, on-the-ground research.  What constructive role does civil society play in transitional justice?  Religious actors?  The Catholic Church?  Under what conditions do these actors play this constructive role?  What potential do the “traditional mechanisms” of tribes and native cultures have for advancing justice?  How is the rule of law strengthened by practices like apology, forgiveness, and symbolic recognition?  What concepts best capture the promise of this approach?

The Center itself has reflected this thinking though its links with Chile’s transition to democracy following the downfall of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990.  Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was enabled substantially by the documentation of human rights abuses by the Catholic Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity – whose archives the Center brought to Notre Dame – and was shaped by themes like reconciliation, public apology, and the recognition of victims.  Much more recently, the Center has been linked with South Sudan’s transition, producing a report that evaluates South Sudan’s constitution in light of Catholic Social Thought. On May 6 the Center hosted a day-long consultation on transitional justice in which leading minds on transitional justice gathered at the University of Notre Dame to discuss the role civil society in transitional justice.