In the past two decades, a variety of different approaches to transitional justice have been advocated and implemented. Truth commissions, criminal trials, reparations programmes and restorative justice initiatives are now routinely established in response to serious human rights violations. Yet, the divergent methods used to examine these violations and the contexts in which they occurred have challenged the evidentiary bases of criminal convictions and truth commission reports. In addition, country-specific qualitative analysis into the impact of these types of transitional justice processes have been in tension with the findings of larger comparative, quantitative research into the effect of these initiatives on democracy and human rights standards.

In an effort to bridge these divides, on the 30th January 2013, Oxford Transitional Justice Research (OTJR) launched an ESRC Knowledge Exchange on the methods used to formulate, implement and assess transitional justice processes. The roundtable was hosted at the Centre for Criminology and some of the principle partners involved in the exchange led the discussions including, amongst others, Phil Clark (SOAS, University of London), Leigh Payne (University of Oxford), Carolyn Hoyle (University of Oxford), Briony Jones (swisspeace) and Stephan Parmentier (KU Leuven) and Julia Viebach (University of Oxford).

The overall objectives of the twelve month project are:

  • To map the various methods and methodologies used to determine the occurrence of serious human rights violations and wider societal harm.
  • To exchange information and interrogate the praxis and underlying epistemologies of the legal and non-legal responses to serious human rights violation.
  • To establish links between orthodox and more innovative approaches used to determine the practice and impact of transitional justice processes on individuals and broader societal structures.

As Carolyn Hoyle noted in the introduction to the morning’s discussion, one of the themes that emerged from OTJR’s research activities was the marked differences between the approaches taken by scholars, legal practitioners and civil society actors in both identifying serious human rights violations and responding to them. OTJR aims to further examine these different ways of knowing serious human rights violations and transitional justice through three inter-connected activities: an on-line discussion, a seminar series and a set of methods training workshops.

Phil Clark introduced the first on-line discussion which will be launched later this month. The discussion will examine the role that external actors play in determining the occurrence of serious human rights abuses in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Briony Jones from swisspeace, the civil society partner on the project, then discussed five areas where there is a need for direct exchange between civil society actors and scholars. These included the need to develop projects collaboratively, to provide justification for the chosen methodology and the need to be open to innovative approaches.

Following this contribution, Stephan Parmentier identified three phases of research pursued at KU Leuven. The first focused on perspectives offered by socio-legal and political scholars, the second drew attention to the institutions and functions of transitional justice processes, with particular attention on the non-judicial ways of responding to harms. Finally, the third and current stage has focused on the methods used to identify and contribute to the building blocks needed for justice and peace-building initiatives. With this final phase in mind, Stephan highlighted the strengths and challenges of using public opinion surveys in varying country contexts.

Finally, Leigh Payne discussed the on-going work at Oxford on the impact of transitional justice processes on human rights and democracy indices. In the most recent phase of this research, Leigh noted the challenges of determining the difference between the law and the actual legal practice relating to amnesty laws and highlighted the often unspoken challenges of transitional justice processes being pursued to mask injustices, and thus causing harm to the societies in which they are implemented.

These discussions led to the identification of five re-occurring questions to be explored over the next twelve months;

  1. How does the choice of vocabulary, definition of key terms and the approach to translation influence the collection of data and its interpretations?
  2. How does the epistemological positioning of the researcher or practitioner shape their methodological choice?
  3.  What role can comparisons usefully play in formulating and researching transitional justice processes?
  4. How does the place or location in which the data is gathered influence its content?
  5.  In sensitive post-conflict contexts, what are the ethical obligations to take research findings back to the countries and the specific participants involved in the project?