Governing Truth: NGOs and the Politics of Transitional Justice
*Based on my doctoral dissertation, a portion of which won the 2021 Lawrence S. Finkelstein Award for Best Paper from the International Organization Section of the International Studies Association
Who governs transitional justice? Transitional justice (TJ) is the global regime to deliver truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition after political violence. Existing research tends to depict TJ as a set of government-led institutions, suggesting that the adoption, design, and implementation of TJ mechanisms are primarily, if not exclusively, shaped by governments. Previous scholarship also casts TJ as a set of domestic accountability tools encompassing truth commissions, memorials, trials, compensation programs, and institutional reforms. Yet governments are not the parties most interested in TJ; victims and their families are. And TJ is not only local; it is also global. It is a set of norms and practices that have been developed, refined, institutionalized, and promoted by an international community of experts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representing the interests of victims and their families. This duality, between victims and governments and between the local and the global, sets the stage for my book, Governing Truth: NGOs and the Politics of Transitional Justice.
I argue that TJ is not a set of domestic, government-led processes. Rather, TJ is a transnational, civil society-led institution; it arises from domestic civil society groups’ influence on governments from below and international civil society groups’ influence on governments from above. Composing a global TJ network, these groups give governments the impetus to adopt TJ institutions, design them to succeed, and follow up on them with additional measures. The network’s influence is based in members’ advocacy, technical expertise, and operational assistance to governments. Network members burden share, exercising their comparative advantages – in information, experience, material resources, and political power – to maximize scarce resources. And they alternate leadership and support roles at different stages to enhance their chances of success. The book thus produces a new model of transnational advocacy networks, the burden sharing model. This model goes beyond policy advocacy, which has been the focus of the extant literature, and brings attention to civil society’s essential role in policy design, delivery, and follow-up. To be sure, the TJ network’s success is not inevitable or guaranteed. And there is variation in practice – domestic and international groups do not always collaborate as described. Rather, their success, I argue and the empirical findings show, depends on whether or not they do.
I demonstrate my argument through careful cross-national and cross-case analyses of the TJ life cycle: institutional adoption, design, delivery and follow-up. I focus the inquiry on truth commissions, as they often precede and provide the normative and evidentiary basis for prosecutions, reparations programs, memorialization projects, and reforms. In this vein, the book presents evidence from statistical analyses of the novel Varieties of Truth Commissions Project, a series of datasets that I built over a period of three years with seventeen research assistants at two universities. The datasets capture for the first time (1) the universe of truth commissions, (2) their mandates and investigative powers, (3) their recommendations, and (4) levels of implementation across recommendations. I also produce case studies and probe causal pathways using evidence from my fieldwork, including interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders based in Argentina, Canada, Guatemala, Kenya, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Additional fieldwork in South Africa and Timor-Leste is forthcoming.