January 27, 2023

Transitional Justice & Historical Redress: A special series on historical injustices stemming from slavery and colonialism

DecolonisationNorthTransitional justice

Over the next few weeks, ASF will be publishing a series of articles examining the challenges and questions raised by the recent rise of processes implemented to address the historical injustices of slavery and colonialism, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. This special series is a collaboration between Avocats Sans Frontières and the Leuven Institute of Criminology.

Tentative processes are being put in place by former colonising countries. This has been most prominently the case in contexts of settler colonialism, possibly because of the lasting harmful legacies of colonialism and historical injustices continue to be more visible today in those countries. Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries all have, or are in the process, of setting up truth and reconciliation commissions to provide redress for harms caused to indigenous populations. In the US, calls have also been made to engage in some truth-telling and reparative process for slavery and racial violence.

More recently, we have also seen increased political debates around justice and redress measures for harms and colonial injustices in countries that were involved in exploitation and trade colonialism. The UK, for instance, has been engaged in legal claims and reparations negotiations over its repression of the Mai Mai insurgency in Kenya while Germany has negotiated a, much criticised, reparations agreement with Namibia over the Herero and Nama genocide. Various inquiry commissions have been set up in Belgium, France and the Netherlands to investigate the legacies of colonialism and to propose measures to redress these – often leading to heated controversies over the issue of reparations and apologies.

These developments have stimulated reflections, in both academic and policy circles, on the potential meaning(s) and roles that transitional justice can play in offering justice and redress for historical and enduring injustices which stem from colonial pasts. Traditionally, transitional justice has referred to a range of policies that countries that experienced armed conflicts or repressive rule use to address past human rights violations and injustices. Mobilising transitional justice as a response measure to colonial harms thus entails a broadening of the traditional boundaries of transitional justice, including envisioning its application in western countries and expanding conceptions of the ‘injustices’ and ‘responsibilities’ it seeks to address. It also requires a critical reflection on the extent to which transitional justice is itself embedded in postcolonial normative and political frameworks. Which can result in transitional justice perpetuating structural injustices and power imbalances rather than transforming them.

The contributions to this special series examine some of the challenges and questions this raises. In particular, they explore the adequacy of transitional justice as a framework for addressing the colonial past and what kind of justice model for historical redress transitional justice can offer. Drawing on experiences from a variety of countries, the articles question how effective well-established transitional justice mechanisms – truth commissions, reparations, trials, memorialisation, guarantees of non-recurrence – can be in pursuing justice and redress for historical and enduring injustices as well as in addressing intergenerational traumas inherited from colonialism. What emerges from these reflections is that while transitional justice can be useful for historical redress, they face political constraints (as has also been so commonly the case for transitional justice applied in more paradigmatic contexts) and requires a remodelling of transitional justice’s normative and ideological framings.

Solidarité internationale – Commune d’Etterbeek

This project is supported by the service Solidarité internationale de la commune d’Etterbeek

Leuven Transitional Justice Blog

All articles of this special series will also be available on the Leuven Transitional Justice Blog.

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Also to be read

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ExPEERience Talk #12 - Pre-trial detention in Uganda: Learnings from a study on knowledge, attitudes and practices

Defending the defence: The lawyer faced with the peril of repression