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Transitional Justice

(2019) "Designing Truth: Facilitating Perpetrator Testimony at Truth Commissions." Journal of Human Rights 18(1): 92–110.


Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo


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..


(2020) "Demanding Truth: The Global Transitional Justice Network and the Creation of Truth Commissions." International Studies Quarterly 64(3): 609–625.

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

Since 1970, scores of states have established truth commissions to document 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 (TJ) network and who share the burden of guiding commission adoption and design. I propose that commissions are more likely to be adopted where network members can leverage information and moral authority over governments. I also suggest that commissions are more likely to possess strong powers where international experts, who steward TJ best practices, advise governments. I evaluate these expectations by analyzing two datasets in the novel Varieties of Truth Commissions Project, interviews with representatives from international non-governmental organizations, interviews with Guatemalan non-governmental organization leaders, a focus group with Argentinian human rights advocates, and a focus group at the International Center for Transitional Justice. My results indicate that network members share the burden—domestic members are essential to commission adoption, while international members are important for strong commission design.

(2021) "Safeguarding Truth: Supporting Children's Participation at Truth Commissions."Journal of Human Rights 20(3): 282–303.

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


Children are among the most vulnerable groups 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. Children’s engagement in subsequent transitional justice processes, such as truth commissions, can also shape their development and that of their nations, but for the better. Surprisingly, little scholarship has considered how commissions have been designed to effectively and responsibly secure children’s involvement, notably their testimonies. This article develops a design-based theory of children’s participation in commissions. Then it probes, 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, and (3) measures for protection and psychosocial support. We find broad support for the theory and conclude by discussing the implications of the evidence for scholars and practitioners. 

(2021) "Democratizing Truth: An Analysis of Truth Commissions in the United States." International Journal of Transitional Justice 15(3): 510–532.

Authors: Daniel Posthumus** and Kelebogile Zvobgo


Over the past half-century, numerous transitional justice (TJ) measures have been implemented globally. While much research has examined different TJ modalities in the aftermath of authoritarian rule and armed conflict, a growing body of work recognizes TJ outside of political transitions. We study a noteworthy export from transitional to non-transitional settings: truth commissions. Building on scholarship on TJ in established democracies, we introduce new quantitative data from the Varieties of Truth Commissions Project on truth commissions in an overlooked but significant case: the United States. The data captures 20 past, present and proposed official US truth commissions, most of them at the subnational level. Though their mandates vary considerably, they all address racial injustice, with an emphasis on anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence. We elaborate on trends in the data and discuss the implications for unfolding efforts to reckon with historical and contemporary racial violence and injustice in the United States.

(2023) "Transitional Justice for Historical Injustice." In Lawther, Cheryl, and Luke Moffett (Editors). Research Handbook on Transitional Justice, 2nd edition (pp. 421–435). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Authors: Colleen Murphy and Kelebogile Zvobgo

Historical injustice (political violence, for our purpose) is temporally distant and sometimes temporally extended. The transatlantic slave trade and colonialism are two prominent examples. Violence in the past reverberates into the present. Descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas are subjected to structural, state and interpersonal violence and discrimination, and citizens of former European colonies still pay the consequences of land and labour exploitation and experience the after-effects of being denied self-determination and self-governance. This chapter explores possibilities for transitional justice for historical political violence, with an emphasis on racialized violence. Throughout, we address both slavery and colonialism. While some scholarly and public discussions often separate the two, discussing each in isolation, this separation is a mistake. Slavery was one of the engines of colonialism; the so-called New World was built through the labour of enslaved peoples on stolen Indigenous land. Part of our argument draws attention to the problems that arise when states try to divide history into discrete periods and pursue piecemeal transitional justice. We begin the chapter by discussing some of the reasons why historical injustice should be included in transitional justice. We then turn to the challenges of doing so. Finally, we explore how transitional justice efforts might be re-imagined to better respond to historical injustice.

(2024) "Co-Opting Truth: Explaining Quasi-Judicial Institutions in Authoritarian Regimes." Human Rights Quarterly 46(1): 67–97.

Authors: Shauna N. GilloolyDaniel Solomon, and Kelebogile Zvobgo

What accounts for the creation, design, and outputs of quasi-judicial institutions in autocracies? Prior research demonstrates that autocrats co-opt electoral, legislative, and judicial institutions to curtail opponents' power and curry international patrons' favor. However, scholarship on co-optation neglects quasi-judicial mechanisms, such as truth commissions, that can be useful for arranging a political narrative that bolsters a leader’s image while undermining his rivals. In this article, 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 origins, inputs, and outputs. We theorize that autocrats establish self-investigating commissions in response to threats to their symbolic authority and install rival-investigating commissions in response to threats to both symbolic authority and regime survival. We further argue that these two commission types take on different institutional forms and produce different outputs. Self-investigating commissions are afforded narrow mandates and produce reports that obscure basic facts. Meanwhile, rival-investigating commissions are granted wide mandates and culminate in accurate reports of rivals' responsibility for abuses. We evaluate these expectations through comparative case studies of two autocratic truth commissions in Uganda, and find support.

(2024) "Historical Violence and Public Attitudes Towards Justice: Evidence from the United States." International Journal of Transitional Justice 18(1): 84–108.

Authors: Jamil S. Scott, Daniel Solomon, and Kelebogile Zvobgo 

  • Read a related article from June 2019 in The Conversation

This article brings transitional justice scholarship to bear on the case of racial violence in the United States. We investigate how knowledge of racial terror lynchings shapes Black Americans’ support for symbolic and material transitional justice measures. We administer a survey with an embedded experiment to Black residents in Maryland, a US transitional justice pioneer. We provide select respondents with information about historical lynching violence and find that they are more likely to support symbolic transitional justice (e.g., apologies and memorial markers) than individuals presented with information on contemporary police killings. Regarding material transitional justice (e.g., monetary reparations and community projects), we find no significant differences between groups. Linked fate excepted, we do not find that key aspects of Black identity and the Black American experience (i.e., historical knowledge, police contact, church involvement and Black nationalist beliefs) moderate transitional justice attitudes. Our work indicates the promise and limits of information campaigns to mobilize support for transitional justice.

(2024) "Producing Truth: Public Memory Projects in Post-Violence Societies."Human Rights Quarterly 46(2): 207–233.

Authors: Alexandra Byrne,** Bilen Zerie,** and Kelebogile Zvobgo

How do societies remember historical political violence? We draw on an original dataset of more than 150 memorialization projects proposed by truth commissions in 28 post-violence countries, from 1970 to 2018. These projects include the removal of monuments, installation of museums, inauguration of national days of remembrance, and more. Truth commission recommendations data allows us to not only consider memory sites once established, but also to examine blueprints for the types of memory that could have been made. We develop a typology and inductively generate a theory of the political contests and conflicts that different memory projects are likely to trigger—contests and conflicts that we expect influence the likelihood of project initiation and completion. We conduct an initial probe of the theory using our new data. In so doing, we offer the first systematic, global study of setting and implementing the memorialization agenda in post-violence societies.

"Performing Truth? Examining Transitional Justice Practice in West Africa"

For the volume, Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice. Sévane Garibian, ed.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Claire Crawford

In the last five decades, transitional justice (TJ) institutions have spread rapidly around the world. Scholars cite this trend as evidence of norm spread, specifically diffusion of the norm of acknowledging and providing restitution for human rights violations. But the spread of institutions does not necessarily mean that underlying norms are being diffused and accepted; it can also mean that those norms are being instrumentalized, even co-opted. TJ adoption may reflect, therefore, a desire to perform rather than a substantive commitment. We propose that the difference can be discerned as early as the design stage, with implications for TJ institutions’ operations, outputs, and outcomes. We conceptualize a spectrum: At the lower end, performance, TJ mechanisms are poorly designed, under-resourced, and under-supported by governments, and, at the higher end, substance, they are well designed, adequately resourced, and strongly supported by governments. To begin to disentangle performance and substance, we study truth commissions, generally the first TJ measures implemented after political violence, and we focus on Africa, home to one-third of all global commissions. We analyze data on institutional design from the Varieties of Truth Commissions Project and produce case studies of three West African commissions. We find strong evidence of performative TJ: Many African governments have created truth commissions that are ill-equipped to uncover the truth. Consequently, they have served to (re)produce, rather than combat, impunity.

"Racial Violence and Public Attitudes Toward Justice"

In progress

Authors: Jamil S. Scott, Daniel Solomon, and Kelebogile Zvobgo 

Do members of different social groups prefer different types of justice to address the same episodes of political violence? While some scholarship demonstrates that exposure to violence shapes political attitudes like political tolerance and trust in government, little work considers attitudes toward justice and how such attitudes are shaped by one's social location. We conduct a survey experiment to understand preferences for justice for historical and contemporary racial violence in the United States. We conceive of justice broadly, encompassing apologies, memorial projects, and reparations. We evaluate the influence of respondents' social location, specifically their race, consistent with the scholarship on community and intergenerational experiences of harm. Our results are important because they describe the conditions under which Americans support restitution for historical wrongdoing. Our project thus contributes to the literature on racial justice in American politics and research on transitional justice in comparative politics and international relations.

"Confronting Truth: A Theory of Transitional Justice in Established Democracies"

In progress

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

Why do established democracies adopt transitional justice (TJ) institutions like truth commissions? Three explanations dominate extant scholarly accounts of TJ adoption: (1) elite bargains, (2) power struggle between elites and the masses, and (3) external pressure from foreign governments, international organizations, and human rights non-governmental organizations. However, these explanations do not travel well beyond ideal-typical TJ settings, namely countries transitioning from civil conflict and autocratic rule. Drawing on experiences of TJ in two of the world’s longest-standing democracies—the US commission on Japanese relocation and internment and the Canadian commission on Indian residential schools—this paper inductively builds theory about the relationship between interest groups’ access to legislative and judicial institutions in consolidated democracies and the delivery of TJ institutions. Following this inductive exercise, we trace how the commissions’ founding and design shaped their ability to produce a comprehensive account of abuses and influenced the implementation of their recommendations.

"Proposing Truth: Unpacking Agenda Setting in U.S. Truth Commissions"

In progress


Authors: Daniel Posthumus** and Kelebogile Zvobgo 

Truth commissions are widely used by countries to address past political violence and are increasingly being adopted by democracies and at the sub-national level. In the United States, an overlooked but important transitional justice setting, we see the convergence of these two trends, with approximately 20 past, present, and proposed truth commissions, the majority of which are at the subnational level, and many of which followed widespread racial justice protests in 2020. This paper seeks to understand the agenda-setting process behind these commissions, i.e., why these commissions are established and why they are designed as they are. Leveraging a public opinion survey, elite interviews, and an original dataset of U.S. truth commission mandates, we explain truth commission agenda setting in the United States.

"Mapping Truth: What Can Geospatial Analysis Teach Us About Transitional Justice?"

In progress

Authors: Alyson Reynolds,** Chabeli Yumang,** and Kelebogile Zvobgo 

Transitional justice (TJ) is an interdisciplinary academic field that seeks to understand why and how governments redress political violence, and to what effect. Traditionally, scholars have analyzed TJ measures such as trials, truth commissions, and reparations using qualitative data and methods, with a quantitative turn in the last two decades. Quantitative researchers have investigated the causes and consequences of various TJ processes using cross-national datasets, surveys, and experiments. This work has substantially advanced the field, facilitating global analyses of TJ cases and aiding generalization across cases. There have also been some attempts to map the global TJ landscape, though scholarship has not centered spatial data. This is puzzling, given the importance of space: victims of human rights abuses suffer in particular places – which human rights investigators, relatives, and the broader public later visit. Victims are also commemorated in particular places – through museums, monuments, and memorial markers. This paper explores the geography of memory in an important case, Mauritius, where memory sites punctuate the built environment, confronting the remnants of colonization, slavery, and indentured servitude. For the first time in TJ research, we apply geographic information systems (GIS) to map memory, leveraging historical census records, plantation data, and government reports.

"Extending Truth: Follow-Up Committees and Implementation of Truth Commission Recommendations"

In progress

Authors: Elijah Tsai,** Adriana Rudling,* Kelebogile Zvobgo, and Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm

Truth commissions, quasi-judicial bodies established by states around the world to address patterns of human rights abuses, have drawn increased scholarly attention in recent years. Both backward- and forward-looking in design and function, commissions in their final reports make recommendations to remedy past abuses and prevent future abuses. While much scholarship on transitional justice has neglected truth commission recommendations, recent work investigates their production and implementation, considering such issues as timing, civil society activism, and the work of regional human rights institutions. Some of this research suggests an especially important role for follow-up bodies in facilitating implementation. Yet follow-up institutions vary substantially across cases, with some given specific mandates to monitor, evaluate, and advocate for implementation of recommendations, and others given a broader remit, encompassing such issues as human rights education and the preservation of archives. Follow-up mechanisms also vary in form, structure, and length of operation. Leveraging novel data on truth commission recommendations in Africa and Latin America, we assess whether and to what degree the type and quality of follow-up bodies affects implementation. 

"Localizing and Globalizing Truth: U.S. Transitional Justice in Comparative Context"

For the volume Research Handbook on Victims, Rights, and Justice.  Robyn Holder, Verónica Michel, and Alice Bosma, eds.

Authors: Adriana Rudling* and Kelebogile Zvobgo


Mainstream transitional justice (TJ) scholarship has elided the United States (U.S.) in theory and analysis. This is despite U.S. influence in global TJ practice and in world politics more generally. One reason the country is excluded in research is because it is a non-traditional case; generally, when scholars think of likely candidates for TJ, they think of countries exiting authoritarianism, armed conflict, and other defined periods of violence and repression. Neglecting, even avoiding, non-paradigmatic cases is problematic, however: recent work indicates that TJ in non-transitional contexts is on the rise, amid demands for truth and justice from historically marginalized groups. Taking national truth commissions as an example, non-transitional cases accounted for more than half of global cases in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Non-transitional countries like the U.S. have also witnessed the growth of subnational truth commissions. Building on nascent efforts to “case” non-transitional TJ settings, this chapter discusses the past, present and future of TJ practice in the U.S, including what lessons the country has given the world, what lessons it has gleaned from the world, and what the U.S. and global cases may yet learn from each other. We write with the belief and conviction that survivors and victims of human rights violations and their families deserve to have their experiences acknowledged and their governments held to account – regardless of where they come from, the political regime they live under, or how neatly their local context fits within existing scholarly paradigms.

Governing Truth: NGOs and the Politics of Transitional Justice (book manuscript)

Accepted at Oxford University Press

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

Governing Truth produces a new model of transnational advocacy and advocacy networks, the burden sharing model, to explain why some governments but not others adopt transitional justice (TJ) institutions, design them to succeed, and follow up on them with particular policies. The central argument is that domestic and international civil society actors, who compose a global TJ network, alternate advocacy leadership at different stages: domestic groups are critical for TJ adoption, international experts are vital for strong TJ design, and domestic groups are essential for TJ delivery and follow-up. With a focus on truth commissions, the project demonstrates that governments are more likely to: create commissions where domestic groups are stronger; afford commissions key investigative powers when they are advised by international experts; and implement specific commission recommendations (e.g., reparations) championed by domestic groups. The project presents evidence from statistical analyses of novel data from the Varieties of Truth Commissions. The datasets capture the universe of commissions, their mandates and powers, their recommendations, and levels of implementation across recommendations. The project also presents case studies and probes causal pathways using evidence from fieldwork, including interviews, focus groups, and archival research. Study participants include government officials, former commission leaders, representatives of international organizations and international non-governmental organizations, and human rights advocates in Argentina, Canada, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Additional fieldwork in South Africa is in progress.

*IJL Post-doctoral Fellow

**IJL Undergraduate Fellow

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