Victims, Violence and Voice: Transitional Justice, Oral History and Dealing with the Past

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Abstract

Transitional justice is concerned with the legal and social processes established to deal with the legacy of violence in post-conflict and post-authoritarian contexts. These processes are essentially “creatures of law” – they are established by statute, their work is molded and shaped by lawyers, and their outcomes are benchmarked against what is or is not acceptable in domestic and international law. Concerns have mounted in recent years about the dominance of legalism within the field and the instrumentalization of those most directly affected by past violence. A commonly prescribed – but as yet largely empirically untested – corrective is that transitional justice theory and practice must become more open to interdisciplinary insights and perspectives. The interview – in different guises, contexts and settings – is at the heart of most transitional justice processes. As a historian now working in a School of Law I reflect in this article on the theoretical and practical intersections between law, history, and the interview. Drawing on more than 200 interviews concerning the Northern Ireland conflict and six other international case studies I concentrate in particular on interview-based initiatives that purport to be “victim-centered”. Having identified three interrelated risks - the manipulation of victim voice by vested interests, the affording of authority to particular voices, and the reification or “freezing” of identity - and having related these to the constraints of legal mechanisms and a wider failure to manage victims’ expectations, I argue that a greater familiarity with oral history theory and praxis can usefully illuminate the tensions between legal and historical approaches to engaging voice, and ultimately offer guidance to the shared challenge of victim-centered transitional justice.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHastings International and Comparative Law Review
Volume39
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2016

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