© 2020 by International Justice Lab.

Transitional Justice

"Designing Truth: Facilitating Perpetrator Testimony at Truth Commissions"

Journal of Human Rights 18(1): 92–110.


Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

  • ​See a related article February 2019 in The Washington Post (with Shauna N. Gillooly)


Truth commissions aim to promote transparency, accountability, and reconciliation by compiling detailed narratives of political violence. To achieve this end, both victims and perpetrators of abuses must testify. Yet, little is known about how commissions can be designed to facilitate perpetrator testimony. This article develops a theory of perpetrator participation in truth commissions, with a focus on institutional design. The article then evaluates the effectiveness of four design features—amnesties, subpoena powers, dual-party agreements, and spiritual frameworks—in facilitating perpetrator testimony in the truth commissions in Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Timor-Leste. The analysis indicates that the theoretical constructs developed are present, functional, and influential for perpetrator participation in the three commissions. And, while no individual design feature is essential, the case studies reveal that perpetrator participation may not be forthcoming without a robust dual-party agreement and/or a resonant spiritual framework. This underscores the importance of normative foundations for perpetrators’ engagement with commissions. Crucially, though advantageous features may be present, the criteria required for them to function may not be met, resulting in no effect or a negative effect on participation.


"Demanding Truth: The Global Transitional Justice Network and the Creation of Truth Commissions

Revised and resubmitted to International Studies Quarterly.

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

Since 1970, scores of states have established truth commissions to document historical political violence. Despite their prevalence and potential consequence, the question of why commissions are adopted in some contexts, but not in others, is not well understood. Relatedly, little is known about why some commissions possess strong investigative powers while others do not. I argue that the answer to both questions lies with domestic and international civil society actors, who are connected by a global transitional justice network and who share the burden of guiding commission creation and design. I first propose that commissions are more likely to be created where network members can leverage information and moral authority over governments. I next suggest that commissions are more likely to possess strong powers when governments are advised by the International Center for Transitional Justice—the steward of TJ best practices. I evaluate these expectations through analysis of my novel Varieties of Truth Commissions dataset, interviews with INGO representatives, a focus group with domestic advocates from Argentina, and a focus group with ICTJ leadership and staff. My results indicate that network members burden share: domestic members are essential to commission creation while international members are important for strong commission design.

"Safeguarding Truth: Supporting Children’s Testimony at Truth Commissions"

Invited to revise and resubmit at Journal of Human Rights.

Authors: Sameer S.J.B. Rana** and Kelebogile Zvobgo 

**MPA Candidate at Columbia University


Children are among the most vulnerable populations during periods of repression and conflict, and their exposure to violence can have long-term effects on their development, including how they manage and express feelings of fear, anger, and shame. Likewise, children's engagement in subsequent transitional justice processes, such as truth commissions, can shape their development and that of their nations. Surprisingly, little scholarship considers how commissions have been, and can be, designed to effectively and responsibly secure children's involvement, notably their testimonies. We develop a design-based theory of children's participation in commissions. We then probe, through case studies of the commissions in South Africa, Timor-Leste, and Sierra Leone, the influence of three institutional features on children's participation: (1) provisions for children in the mandate, (2) targeted outreach programs, and (3) measures for protection and psychosocial support. We find broad support for the theory and conclude by offering implications for scholars and practitioners.

"Co-Opting Truth: Explaining Quasi-Judicial Institutions in Authoritarian Regimes

Under review.

Authors: Daniel Solomon and Kelebogile Zvobgo

Why do autocrats adopt quasi-judicial institutions, and what accounts for the design and outcomes of these bodies? A growing body of research elucidates how autocrats use electoral, legislative, and judicial institutions to co-opt domestic opponents and curry favor from international patrons. However, scholarship on co-optation neglects quasi-judicial mechanisms, such as truth commissions, that can be useful for arranging a historical narrative that bolsters a leader's image while undermining his rivals. In this paper, we formalize the concept of autocratic truth commissions—which account for one-third of truth commissions globally—and develop and test a novel theory of their causes, institutional design, and outcomes. We theorize that autocrats facing threats to their symbolic authority establish self-investigating commissions that are weak and obscure basic facts, including the nature and extent of abuses and the parties responsible. By contrast, autocrats facing imminent threats to their survival install victor's commissions that possess strong investigative powers and culminate in a comprehensive account of rivals' responsibility for and involvement in abuses. We evaluate these expectations through comparative case studies of two autocratic truth commissions in Uganda, and find consistent support. We conclude with a discussion of implications for scholars of autocratic politics and transitional justice.

"Confronting Truth: Investigating Transitional Justice in Consolidated Democracies"

In progress.

Authors: Nastaran Far*, Hailey Robertson*, and Kelebogile Zvobgo 

*IJL Fellows at the University of Southern California

Why do Western democracies adopt transitional justice (TJ) mechanisms such as truth commissions? Scholarship suggests that large-scale political transformation, namely conflict termination or regime change, is a prerequisite for TJ implementation. However, truth commissions have also been created in established democracies. To respond to this puzzle, we evaluate through case studies if, and to what extent, existing explanations of truth commission adoption—notably, elite bargains and civil society mobilization—were determining factors for the use of truth commissions in two of the world's longest-standing democracies: the United States and Canada. We find that the elite bargain hypothesis is critically limited in its explanatory power across the two cases. Moreover, the nature and extent of civil society mobilization in these two cases differs considerably from other truth commission experiences. In the US, the commission examining Japanese internment was the product of civil society groups simultaneously lobbying national legislators and filing high-profile lawsuits for redress. Meanwhile, the Canadian commission investigating the Indian residential school system was the product, rather than the cause, of legal challenges against the government. Following this analysis, we explore how the two commissions’ founding and design shaped their effectiveness in rendering an exhaustive narrative on the past, as well as the implementation of their recommendations. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for other democracies that have yet to confront the past.

"Spreading Truth? Evaluating Diffusion of the Transitional Justice Norm in West Africa"

In progress.

Authors: Claire Crawford and Kelebogile Zvobgo

Constructivist accounts of international politics suggest that countries adopt human rights practices like transitional justice (TJ) because there exists an international norm that has spread across borders and over time. Scholarship in this vein has taken spatial and temporal clustering of institutions like trials and truth commissions as evidence of diffusion of the TJ norm. However, existing studies have focused on institutional adoption and neglected institutional design. This is a striking omission, as strong or weak institutional design can indicate states' underlying commitments to truth and justice. Moreover, institutional design matters for institutional performance. In response, this paper presents the first systematic study of truth commission institutional design in Africa, a region that boasts one-third of truth commissions globally. The paper leverages quantitative data from the Varieties of Truth Commissions Project to reveal significant heterogeneity in the investigative powers afforded to truth commissions, even when we consider commissions in countries that are the most geographically proximate and that were implemented around the same time. This variation suggests that, while the use of truth commissions has spread across the Continent, and indeed the globe, the TJ norm is only weakly held. Indeed, many governments have established commissions that are ill-equipped to construct a comprehensive account of past abuses, including the individuals and institutions most responsible. Consequently, these commissions produce, rather than combat, impunity. Case studies of commissions in three West African countries, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, elaborate on the quantitative evidence of uneven and incomplete diffusion of the TJ norm.

"Governing Truth: NGOs, Accountability Politics, and Truth Commissions"

In progress.

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

Is transitional justice a domestic or international institution, and who governs it? Much research describes it as a set of domestic accountability processes. Yet, the practice of TJ has been developed, institutionalized, and normalized by an international community of experts and non-governmental organizations. Previous research also suggests that governments lead TJ. Yet, TJ is first and foremost for survivors and victims' families: they are the most interested parties and have the most to gain. In addition, TJ is rarely post-violence governments' primary objective and, in some instances, they see it as a threat to regime stability and peace. I build on these fragmented, if not contradicting accounts, and propose that TJ is neither a domestic or international institution but, rather, a transnational institution. Further, it is not driven by governments but by civil society actors who compose a global network of TJ advocates working to represent the interests of survivors and victims' families. Leveraging original quantitative data and qualitative evidence from archival research and interviews with human rights advocates and government officials in Guatemala, I show that civil society groups inspire TJ processes and use their outputs—for example, truth commission reports—to pursue and implement further measures.