Transitional justice as social control: political transitions, human rights norms and the reclassification of the past

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10 Scopus citations

Abstract

This article offers an interpretation of transitional justice policies – the efforts of post-conflict and post-dictatorship societies to address the legacy of past abuses – as a form of social control. While transitional justice is commonly conceptualized as responding to a core problem of impunity, this article argues that such formulation is too narrow and leads to lack of coherence in the analysis of the diverse array of transitional mechanisms, which include among others trials, truth commissions, reparations for victims and apologies. Building on the work of Stanley Cohen, the article contends that the core transitional problem is the denial of human rights violations, and consequently that the common purpose of all transitional justice mechanisms is to reclassify the past: redefining as deviant some acts and individuals which prior to the transition were considered ‘normal’. The article identifies and analyses three themes in the application of a social control framework to transitional justice: (1) truth, memory and retroactive social control, pertains to the way truth-seeking transitional justice mechanisms reclassify past events by engaging in social control of and through memory; (2) censure, celebration and transitional social control refers to the reclassification of categories of individuals through expressions of both social disapproval and praise; and (3) civil society and social control from below concerns the role of social movements, organizations and groups as informal agents of social control during transitions. The concluding section recaps and briefly explores the concept of ‘good moral panic’ in the context of political transitions. While the concept of social control tends to have negative connotations for critical sociologists, this work suggests that efforts to categorize, punish and disapprove certain behaviours as deviant may not only be viewed as supporting a conservative status-quo, but also as promoting fledging human rights norms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)691-711
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Volume69
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2018
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Social control
  • human rights
  • social censure
  • transitional justice
  • truth commissions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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