The Pitfalls and Politics of Holistic Justice

The Pitfalls and Politics of Holistic Justice

This article critically assesses the concept of the complementarity of means, a concept that underpins the ‘holistic justice’ turn in postconflict policy making. Our concern is with how global transitional justice strategies are being informed by a compelling but vague ideal of institutional cooperation. Drawing on research into Sierra Leone's ‘two tracks’ of transitional justice, we argue that political interaction between the two mechanisms and a contentious, ad hoc learning process between the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were crucial to the way the complementarity of means has come to underpin the holistic justice agenda. We caution that by treating the complementarity of means as a mechanical outcome of the mere existence of separate transitional justice mechanisms, global policy makers have drawn the wrong empirical lessons from Sierra Leone. Political engagement played a central role in constructing a pragmatic partnership between the competing institutions, and in accounting for some of the long-term and unintended consequences of transitional justice. We argue that if a complementarity of means is to be effectively realized global policy makers need to embrace – rather than deny – the politics of holistic justice.

Policy Implications

  • Transitional justice mechanisms should recognize and address the tensions and competing policy choices represented by alternative mechanisms, inviting greater public debate about the appropriate configuration of the holistic justice agenda.
  • Key norm entrepreneurs, such as the UN and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), should do more to engage with the long-term and unintended consequences of failed transitional justice. Assuming a complementarity of means has fostered complacency about the need to develop effective strategies for achieving holistic justice.
  • A complementarity of means does not emerge organically: effective cooperation requires greater strategic coordination in both the short and long term. To this end, stakeholders should draw up and work within a ‘transitional charter’, which sets out the basic terms of cooperation and provides a forum for resolving operational disputes.
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