This article argues that the field of transitional justice (TJ) has historically excluded issues of economic inequality, structural violence, redistribution and development. It argues that transitional justice mechanisms are not neutral and the invisibility of economics within these processes contributes to maintaining a narrative wherein inequality is a question of time or development rather than an ideology of elites.
The article is split into three parts: chronological and regional iterations of global TJ; the absence of economic questions in the literature; and possible costs of such an omission. It draws on a range of examples to outline some methods by which attention to the economic dimensions of conflict and transition has been suppressed and offers a list of some of the stakes involved.
It argues that transitional justice mechanisms are not neutral; they simultaneously construct and are constituted by new regimes in the aftermath of significant social change, enforce norms of a new liberal state, and memorialise a violent past in the service of creating a peaceful future. As a result, TJ has failed to recognise the full importance of structural violence, inequality, and economic (re)distribution to conflict and for its resolution, including processes of truth or justice seeking and reconciliation. This has three consequences:
- An incomplete understanding of the origins of conflict: with a narrative that seeks to foster sustainable peace and create national reconciliation.
- An inability to imagine structural change due to a focus on reparations: when economics are addressed in TJ it is usually through the narrow focus of reparations and compensation. This may have specific distributional effects and help to define guilt and victimhood, and may also serve to mark the continuing lack of significant redistribution.
- The possibility of renewed violence: the argument that the redistribution of wealth is beyond the scope of TJ ignores the distributional effects of transitional justice instruments that can perpetuate inequality in the new post-transition state.
By leaving economic development, issues of resource distribution or inequality of power/wealth to separate courts or to executive control, transitional justice institutions implicitly tell society that development and conflict are separate and that inequality itself is not to be prosecuted or amnestied. This separation allows a myth to be formed that the origins of conflict are political or ethnic rather than economic or resource-based, and increases the risk of renewed violence. Programmatic resolutions must come later. The first step towards redressing these existing biases is to reveal and untangle them.