by Noami Roht-Arriaza and Javier Mariezcurrena (eds). New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 358pp. Cloth $88.00/£45.00. ISBN: 0521860105. Paper $36.99/£19.99. ISBN: 0521677505. eBook format. $30.00. ISBN: 0511247907.

Reviewed by Adriana Buliga-Stoian, Department of Political Science, Binghamton University – SUNY. Email: mbuliga1 [at]


The collected case studies in this volume address the question of achieving justice in the face of past human rights violations. The question in itself is quite broad and could be approached from a number of angles. However, in her introduction, Noami Roht-Arriaza successfully defines the main focus of the book, as well as the main themes that run through the following chapters. From the introduction to Ellen Lutz’s concluding chapter, the volume constitutes a well-organized, cohesive, and detailed account of the institutions and processes that can be employed to achieve the goals of transitional justice—that is, to bring justice and reconciliation to societies torn by legacies of human rights violations.

Roht-Arriaza’s introduction defines transitional justice as the “set of practices, mechanisms and concerns that arise following a period of conflict, civil strife or repression, and that are aimed directly at confronting and dealing with past violations of human rights and humanitarian law” (p.2). Similarly, the book focuses on two recurring themes of transitional justice, the search for truth and justice, as well as the mechanisms employed to secure them: prosecutions and criminal investigations, truth commissions, vetting and cleansing of security forces, and reparation programs. As the editor notes in her introduction, there are many other aspects of transitional justice that remain outside the scope of the book, but an attempt to address them all might render the enterprise devoid of any meaningful contribution.

The impressive depth of the analysis in this volume easily makes up for the inevitable omissions implied by its narrow definition of transitional justice. The development of truth commissions and tribunals is analyzed in terms of historical development, which brings the chapter authors to address some current attempts at building such institutions, and their geographical, political, functional, and institutional variations. Originally, truth commissions and tribunals were used interchangeably to administer transitional justice. Present-time transitional justice has moved toward more complex and multi-layered institutional designs meant to overcome the shortcomings that have marked the process in the past. Newer developments include the coexistence of different transitional justice mechanisms within the same country or institutional structure, and complex interaction between local, national and international layers of administration. [*230]

The case studies presented in this book illustrate these trends and the manner in which a combination of different functions and different levels of administration has affected the transitional justice process. The cases were selected to exemplify these aspects as well as to account for variation across time and space, political conditions, range and autonomy of relevant actors, and institutional setup. The presentation of the cases studies is divided into two parts, each with its own central theme. Part I deals with aspects of institutional design of the tribunals and truth commissions. Part II analyzes the layering of the process at the local, national and international levels, with an emphasis on the more recent development of local tribunals and reconciliation attempts.

The emphasis in Part I is placed on the types of organizations that can be used to administer transitional justice and how accountability can be distributed between or within various institutions. The cases presented vary geographically as well as in terms of the context of the crimes in question. There is thus enough variation in the cases to paint a useful, if incomplete picture of transitional justice across time and space. At the same time, the similarities across cases are salient enough to facilitate useful comparison. For example, Sierra Leone and Columbia are somewhat similar in terms of the context in which the crimes under investigation were committed – armed conflict, as well as in terms of the underlying goals of the established transitional justice process – reconciliation in order to prevent repeated outbreaks of violence, and the pressures coming from both domestic and international actors. Nonetheless, each country has structured its efforts for justice and reconciliation differently. Sierra Leone’s efforts were placed into two separate institutions, one purely national and investigative, and another established with international support and intended to prosecute international crimes not covered by the blanket amnesty issued at the end of the conflict. Colombia, on the other hand, has chosen to place all its truth and justice efforts and mechanisms in one organization, while the legislators and the government are struggling to find the right mix of toughness and forgiveness to guarantee achievement of both reconciliation and justice. The two cases speak to one another and are good choices to be placed side by side. As the two cases show, truth and justice are not necessarily mutually exclusive and can be combined within the same institution or across institutions within the same system. The problems as well as the virtues of such an approach are discussed at length in the respective chapters and can be used for further reflections on the issue.

Another interesting parallel can be drawn between the cases of transitional justice in Peru and Mexico. These cases are similar to the extent that efforts in both countries deal with crimes committed during an authoritarian regime but differ, again, in how they organized and balanced the principles of truth and justice within the institutional framework. The former combined the two in one institution and took it upon itself to make recommendations for later prosecution, while the latter chose to [*231] break up the process in a multitude of institutions and layers. Another interesting aspect that the authors bring to light in these two cases, which is also a theme in the cases of Colombia and Sierra Leone, is the question of independence from political pressures and the credibility of the institutions. It is an aspect that, while prevalent in all cases presented here, could in itself become a stand-alone topic of research for which this collection of studies would be an excellent building block. Generally, the issue of constraints faced by these institutions and how they managed to overcome them is well developed throughout the case studies and could be a topic of separate analysis.

Part II deals with the organization of transitional justice at the local, national, and international levels, as well as the various ways in which they supplement or condition one another. The case of East Timor is revisited in Part II (it was discussed in Part I as an illustration of attempts to reconciliate national and international constraints through the framework of one institution designed to investigate and prosecute crimes committed during a foreign occupation), with an emphasis on local-level efforts to bring justice and reconciliation within the realm of smaller communities affected by violence. The Rwandan case illustrates the same type of local-level transitional justice intended to deal with the aftermath of a bloody war in which ordinary people were both victims and perpetrators of heinous crimes. In both cases, the authors again pay special attention to the interplay between these efforts at the local level and efforts undertaken by other institutions at the national level. The successes and shortcomings of this approach are analyzed in detail, and it is fair to conclude with the authors that, when such efforts complement national level efforts for transitional justice, they produce beneficial results. This volume’s analyses of such cases and the interplay among different types of institutions illuminates an interesting aspect of transitional justice that can serve as an important reference for later studies of the topic.

While the cases of Rwanda and East Timor focus attention on the interplay between local and national aspects of transitional justice, the chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the interaction between national and international layers of constraints and aspirations for transitional justice. Iraq exemplifies the effects of international pressures and influences on national administration of transitional justice, while Afghanistan is a good example of how domestic issues can constrain the process. Finally, the cases of Chad and Argentina present the process in a temporal perspective and draw out the importance of the development of new approaches in the tricky process of obtaining justice for crimes committed in the past. These two cases demonstrate how international and domestic influences interact over time in shaping the transitional justice process.

The conclusion draws together the main findings of the volume. It draws attention once again to the two main themes motivating the case studies, as well as some relatively minor findings that could be of interest for future research. All in all, these studies not [*232] only address the question that the book seeks to answer, but also they manage to point to new directions of research without sacrificing the volume’s coherence or consistency.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Adriana Buliga-Stoian.