Since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched in 1995, truth commissions have become an increasingly popular policy option for redressing legacies of mass violence. Proponents claim that truth commissions not only represent a viable alternative to trials, but they can also—among other things—provide an accurate historical record of violence, empower survivors to recount their stories, and provide vital recommendations for socio-political change. Jamie Rowen’s book, Searching for Truth in the Transitional Justice Movement, brings important insight into both truth commissions’ proliferation and why they are unlikely to live up to their proponents’ lofty expectations. Rowen argues that truth commissions’ rise stems from a loosely structured and professionalized movement that has emerged around the idea of transitional justice. To date, scholars have primarily conceptualized transitional justice as a field, discipline, and even a theory. Rowen’s emphasis on treating transitional justice as an idea is thus a novel approach. The phrase “transitional justice” first emerged in the 1990s as scholars, policymakers, and advocates debated how countries transitioning from authoritarianism and/or armed conflict to democracy and peace might use the law to address past human rights abuses. By drawing on a wealth of interviews with leading advocates and documents from the Rockefeller Archives in New York, Rowen brings insight into the central role that the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) played in formalizing the idea of transitional justice as a distinct set of interventions designed to achieve redress for mass violence. The ICTJ also helped popularize truth commissions as a signature intervention of the movement. Rowen claims that early leaders in the transnational transitional justice movement—particularly those who spearheaded the ICTJ, such as Priscilla Hayner—were careful to promote a malleable idea of transitional justice, meaning they rallied the idea’s aspirational qualities, yet were “ambiguous with regard to the value of prosecutions to redress mass violence” (4). Rowen’s claim that the transitional justice movement was ever ambiguous concerning the value of criminal prosecutions is likely to surprise many scholars, policymakers, and advocates. Indeed, her deep focus on the ICTJ’s role in professionalizing the movement overshadows the impact of other key elites—such as Diane Orentlicher—who were unambiguous concerning the value of criminal prosecutions to the emerging movement. After exploring the origins and professionalization of the transitional justice movement, Rowen analyzes calls to create truth commissions in the former Yugoslavia, Colombia, and the United States. To explain such efforts, she develops a “theory of instrumentalization(s)” (11). She argues that truth commissions—like the movement from which they stem—are malleable, meaning disparate actors are likely to perceive them as vehicles for achieving diverse goals, ranging from documenting human rights abuses to securing compensation from the state. This malleability means that the idea of transitional justice and the truth commission intervention are useful frames, which actors can instrumentalize to inspire others, as well as legitimate their goals and strategies. Rowen further emphasizes that organizational dynamics (e.g., professional identities, personal relationships, and financial resources), along with political opportunities (e.g., whether governments are willing or able to redress mass violence, and how they choose to do so), will shape the instrumentalization process. However, while the malleability of the transitional justice idea and truth commission intervention is an asset for the movement, it is also a liability: while both are easy to support in principle, in practice, support is likely to prove shallow. Rowen further argues that the process of mobilizing around the idea of transitional justice and the truth commission intervention is likely to reproduce, versus mitigate, the socio-political divisions that actors seek to redress. Rowen’s empirical chapters provide a rich, descriptive account of how diverse political actors have instrumentalized the transitional justice idea and the truth commission intervention. These chapters draw on over 200 interviews with transnational and domestic justice advocates, hundreds of organizational documents, along with participant observations at over 50 conferences on transitional justice. In the former Yugoslavia and Colombia, the malleability of the idea and intervention meant that diverse actors could agree on the utility of truth commissions. However, efforts to create a truth commission in the former Yugoslavia stalled, given fraught organizational dynamics and political opportunities. The initiative also reinforced and exacerbated existing regional, socio-political divisions. Thus, a disruptive instrumentalization occurred. In Colombia, conducive organizational dynamics and political opportunities meant that the idea and intervention helped facilitate a peace accord, resulting in a transformative instrumentalization. Nonetheless, as in the former Yugoslavia, efforts reinforced existing socio-political divisions. Finally, while a truth commission was appealing to US officials as a means of redressing US detention policies, proponents did not want to associate their efforts with the transitional justice movement, which they saw as something that was only applicable to other countries. Rowen characterizes the US case as a decoupled instrumentalization. Ultimately, the theory of instrumentalization(s) and case studies leave open important questions. In particular, it is unclear which organizational dynamics and political opportunities are specifically the most salient for producing each of the instrumentalizations that Rowen identifies. Nor is it entirely clear what Rowen means when she characterizes organizational dynamics and political opportunities as more or less conducive to different instrumentalizations. In addition, when discussing political opportunities that affect how actors from different countries might appropriate and promote transitional justice, Rowen overlooks the role that international factors (particularly foreign governments), public opinion, and coalitional politics might play. Finally, Rowen does not elucidate the extent to which her findings might generalize to other cases. In sum, the greatest strength of Searching for Truth is its empirical chapters, which provide much-needed insight into disparate actors’ recent efforts to create truth commissions in the former Yugoslavia, Colombia, and the United States. In so doing, the book ultimately challenges scholars, policymakers, and advocates to think more critically about the diverse actors that appropriate, promote, and thereby transform the transitional justice idea and movement. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 8, 2018
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