Enacting transitional justice in Colombia and South Africa by Fabio Andres Diaz Pabon

Debates on the provision of justice in countries transitioning from armed violence to peace often fail to reflect on how the objective of justice must be linked with its practice. A recently published volume explores this through reflecting on the challenges facing the implementation of the transitional justice framework established in the recently signed peace agreements in Colombia.


Considering the practice of development and justice is as important as reflecting on what development is and what its relation is to justice. However, when we write about justice and development, we often assert what should be done, leaving aside questions on how to do it. This is commonly the case with initiatives related to the implementation of peace agreements, and in particular transitional justice frameworks. Justice and development are intertwined concepts, as discussed by Sen and De Greiff.

“Transitional justice” initiatives form a central part of the transition processes designed to move countries away from war and violence (recall that around 60% of armed conflicts relapse in under five years following a peace agreement). However, debates remain regarding what kind of justice should be sought through these processes: restorative (a system of justice that aims to heal and restore social relations within communities) or retributive (a system of justice based on the punishment of offenders), and whether local or national justice initiatives work better. Initiatives for justice and transitional justice face the challenge of bringing about development in different contexts and of integrating different, even competing, stories. This must be achieved in the face of the risk of overgeneralisation regarding what works and what does not work.

The truth is that we still lack an understanding of what really works in bringing about justice; we have opinions and beliefs on what form of justice is better, but no assessment of this has been done on a long-term basis across territories in transitional contexts—at most we have evidence specific to particular contexts in bounded time frames. However justice and development are endeavours that extend over long time periods. In addition, we must recognise that the study and practice of transitional justice is a fairly recent field; the evidence on what works or does not work is not as clear as we would like.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—all talk and no action?

The South African case, and especially its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, lauded in the 1990s and early 2000s as a mechanism of transition able to bring justice to victims of atrocities and human rights abuses and to advance reconciliation, is illuminating. The case clearly illustrates the interlinkages between justice and development: marginalised black South Africans were promised empowerment, emancipation and development as an outcome of the transition away from the Apartheid regime, and this was understood as necessary to reconcile the country. However, over time the “ideal” nature of the South African Transitional Justice framework has been critiqued, and gaps in the implementation of the promises of the transition embraced by South Africa have emerged, raising questions regarding failures to realise the vision of justice the country pursued.

From this, it is clear that it is not only important to reflect on what justice is and how it is envisioned, but also on how visions of justice should be implemented. An ideal framework for justice that cannot be materialised is a mirage that erodes the legitimacy of institutions and may create or exacerbate grievances that fuel further conflicts and affect the legitimacy of the state. South Africa did not only face challenges in arriving at its vision of justice; it faced challenges in translating this particular view of justice into practice.

Colombia’s transition: facing similar problems

The transitional justice framework and the promise of justice espoused in general the peace agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP illustrates the complexities of and contestations involved in determining a shared vision of justice, as well as the critical importance of the need to reflect on the challenges of how to affect this justice. Peace agreements are mere pieces of paper—they need to be enacted and realised in order to for countries to achieve peace.

Practitioners, bureaucrats and academics wanting to understand and effectively respond to the implementation challenges of development and justice work must engage the link between theory and practice and focus explicitly on practice. In the case the transitional justice components of the peace agreements in Colombia, this requires consideration of multiple elements. Academics and practitioners in Colombia and elsewhere in the global South have attempted such an exercise over the last two years—captured in the recent publication “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Colombia– Transitioning from Violence.

The volume considers how the context of Colombia conditions the possibility of the justice agreements being implemented and the practical implications and requirements of the concepts of justice mobilised in the agreements. The text engages with the challenges ahead for the implementation of the transitional justice agreements, particularly in relation to rural reform, reincorporation and reconciliation, historical memory and symbolic reparation, as well as feminist and intergenerational approaches to justice and reconciliation. The volume also brings together lessons applicable to Colombia from other countries’ experiences with transitional justice—notably from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Peru and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This kind of analysis will always face the constant tension between theory—the legislative frameworks guaranteeing human rights—and practice—the realisation of these ideas—in complex settings in which generalisations are difficult, evidence is limited, and information is limited. This is the challenging space in which Transitional Justice frameworks will succeed or fail in bringing about development in Colombia, South Africa, and elsewhere.


UntitledAbout the author: 

Fabio Andres Diaz Pabon is a Colombian political scientist. He is a research associate at the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the ISS. Fabio works at the intersection between theory and practice, and his research interests are related to state strength, civil war, conflict and protests in the midst of globalisation.

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