This article is squarely opposed to views advanced by Eric Posner, Adrian Vermeule, and others that transitional justice is just a special case of “Ordinary Justice.” Paying special attention to debates about reparations, this article argues that transitional justice is extraordinary, reflecting the source and nature of atrocities perpetrated under an abusive regime, and focused on the challenges and goals that define transitions to democracy. In particular, this Article argues that transitional justice is not profane, preservative, and retrospective, but, rather, Janus-faced, liminal, and transformative. The literature on reparations in transitions is divided between critics who regard reparations as quasi-tort awards that violate basic commitments to individual fairness and those who appeal to collective responsibility, atonement, or reconciliation as special transitional justice theories. These debates have not reached a persuasive resolution because both camps fail to recognize and take full normative account of the extraordinary conditions in abusive regimes. What distinguishes pre-transitional abuses from ordinary crime is the role played by an abusive paradigm. An abusive paradigm is a combination of social norms, law, and institutional practice that utilizes a bi-polar logic to justify targeted violence. Abusive paradigms gain authority after the collapse of dynamic stability – the overlapping network of associations and oppositions that restricts violence and violent impulses in stable regimes. Once dominant, abusive paradigms rationalize and enforce a pathological status inequality that excludes those in an oppressed group from cross-secting identities, allowing abusers to regard them as appropriate targets for exclusion and abuse.
The primary task in transition is to seize the liminal moment between an abusive past and a future committed to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in order to achieve some level of parity between victims and abusers, in part by creating or reconstituting the network of overlapping identities reflective of a dynamically stable society. Reparations and other transitional justice tools, liberated from the constraints of ordinary justice models, have a role to play in this extraordinary endeavor as sites for what Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks has called “effective norm change.” For example, symbolic reparations can provide official recognition of victims. Material reparations can provide former victims with meaningful access to spheres of public and private life once denied to them as a consequence of their status. Treating reparations as part of the extraordinary endeavor of social transformation also provides ready responses to common objections, including those prominent in debates about historical reparations.
- transitional justice,