From ‘Transition’ to ‘Transformation’ – A New Approach to Post-Conflict Justice

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of countries considered ‘in transition’, however of nearly hundred of those countries only a handful can be considered to be moving towards successful, well-functioning democracies.  It is not a surprise considering that transitional justice is founded on westen-liberal peace theories, and promotes a one-size fits all solution to redress violations committed during conflicts or authoritarian regimes – and does not look much further than that.

Over the years Sri Lanka too has been grappling with ‘transitional justice’; trying to set up mechanisms in order to adhere to the standards of the international community, however, nothing constructive has come out of it. I have been studying this concept in the context of Sri Lanka, possibly for the past 6 years, and what has dawned on me time and time again is that the focus needs to change from a process that is run by the politicians and elites of the country (and outside the country) to one that is completely embedded in the grassroots.

A fundamental weakness of transitional justice is that it takes place at the top (i.e the process is run by governments, international and national bodies)¹.  This prevents the results expected to reach deep into the soil of the society². This explains, at least partly, why there seems to be little or no effect from the transitional justice process thus far. Therefore, it seems timely that an emerging concept – Transformative Justice – be introduced to the Sri Lankan post-conflict context.

The ‘transformative justice’ approach builds on transitional justice and encompasses key elements of transitional justice such as accountability, truth and knowledge. However, it goes a step further, firstly, by requiring participants of the conflict to be subjects of the process, rather than objects. That is, by requiring victims (and perpetrators) to not just be passive participants but to actively engage in the design and implementation of the process, thereby directly addressing the needs of victims³.

Apart from being rooted in the local, transformative justice focuses not just on the past, but also on the future, suggesting ‘long-term, sustainable processes embedded in society’4. As Louise Arbour once said, the transitional justice process should be ambitious enough to assist in transforming oppressed societies into free ones by addressing the issues of the past through “measures that will procure an equitable future”

Similarly, transformative justice also places more importance on the need to address social, cultural and economic violations. In the past transitional justice has been criticised for excluding economic, social and cultural rights from its discourse and practices. However, as the links between transitional justice and development has become more apparent, scholars6 have paid more attention to socioeconomic justice in a transitional context.

Furthermore, transformative justice goes a step further than transitional justice by including more than a legal justice mechanisms, but also requiring a transformation of political structures in a post-conflict state7. Political justice includes ensuring the rule of law, the respect for human rights, institutional reform and getting rid of a culture of impunity. Therefore, a transformative justice approach widens the agenda by placing emphasis on state building and institutional reforms. Therefore, “strengthening state institutions should be seen as a precondition or entry-point for successful transitional justice measures”9

Considering the state of transitional justice in Sri Lanka, I have been inquiring if there is a need to adopt the ‘transformative’ and move away from the ‘transitional’? By exploring this new concept, my intention is not to replace transitional justice – because the concept of transformative justice does not seek to do this – but to enhance it to fit into the context of Sri Lanka. In the weeks coming I will be posting a series of posts exploring the different elements proposed by ‘transformative justice’, starting from the relationship between the past, present and future, then exploring the importance of  localism, moving on to socioeconomic justice, and finally political justice. And analyse how it could be applied to the post-conflict context of Sri Lanka. Your comments and thoughts are welcome as always.


¹ Gready, P., Boesten, J., Crawford, G. and Wilding, P. (2010). Transformative Justice: A Concept Note; Gready, P. and Robins, S. (2014). “From Transitional to Transformative Justice: A New Agenda for Practice”. The International Journal of Transitional Justice. Vol.8. pp:339-361.
² Daly, E., (2001). “Transformative Justice: Charting a Path to Reconciliation”. International Legal Perspective. Vol. 12, pp.73-183
³ Lambourne, W., (2009). Transitional Justice and Peacebuilding After Mass Violence. International Journal of Transitional Justice. Vol. 3, No.1, pp.28-48.
Arbour, L. (2006). “Economic and Social Justice for Societies in Transition”. Second Annual Transitional Justice Lecture hosted by the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law and the International Centre for Transitional Justice. New York University Law School, New York, 25 October 2006.
Scholars such as Arbour 2006; Mani, 2008; de Grieff and Duthie, 2009; Laplante 2007, 2008, 2014; Hecht and Michalowski 2012
see note 3
8  see note 2
See note 1

One thought on “From ‘Transition’ to ‘Transformation’ – A New Approach to Post-Conflict Justice

  1. This makes a lot of sense. I hope this approach can be tested in post conflict countries at the grassroots… to help heal wounds, and help people move on to live a purposeful life.

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