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.

"Safeguarding Truth: Supporting Children's Participation at Truth Commissions"

Forthcoming in Journal of Human Rights.

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

*MPA Candidate at Columbia University


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. 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 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, 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. 

"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.

"Spreading Truth?  Substance and Performance in Transitional Justice Practice: The Case of West Africa"

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

In progress.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Claire Crawford

Transitional justice (TJ) institutions have proliferated over the past half-century. Scholars cite this trend as evidence of a norm of accountability for political violence. Yet, the spread of TJ measures does not imply norm internalization; TJ’s spread can also be explained by instrumental adaptation. Essentially, in many places, TJ may reflect a pressure to perform rather than a substantive commitment. Leveraging the institution of truth commissions, we propose that the difference between performance and substance can be discerned as early as the design stage. We conceptualize performance and substance along a spectrum: At the lower end, a commission has very weak investigative powers (performance) and, at the higher end, a commission has very strong investigative powers (substance). We adjudicate between performance and substance by studying commissions in Africa, home to one-third of global truth commissions. We analyze data on commission powers from the Varieties of Truth Commissions and find in favor of performance. Many African governments have established commissions with weak powers, ill-equipped to conduct a robust investigation. Consequently, many African commissions have helped to (re)produce, rather than combat, impunity. Case studies of three West African commissions elaborate on the quantitative evidence. TJ here is at best a weakly-held norm.

"Confronting Truth: Investigating Transitional Justice in Established Democracies"

In progress.

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

**IJL Fellows at the University of Southern California

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 wartime relocation and internment of Japanese Americans 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.

"Producing Truth: Public Memory Projects in Post-Violence Societies."

In progress.

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

**IJL Fellows at William & Mary

How do societies remember historical political violence? This paper draws on an original dataset of nearly 200 proposed memorialization projects in 28 post-violence countries, from 1970 to 2018. These projects include installing monuments, developing memory museums, and establishing national days of remembrance. We develop a typology and inductively generate a theory of the political contests triggered by different memory project and, consequently, the likelihood of project implementation. We plan to test our theory through analysis of our new dataset and produce a case study of public memory production in South Africa since apartheid. We also plan to draw on archival documents, city and country maps, and interviews with citizens, human rights advocates, and government representatives.

© 2020 by International Justice Lab.