(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
Listen to an interview from September 2020 on the Politics Politics Politics podcast
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.
Journal of Human Rights. Online First.
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. 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.
Authors: Daniel Solomon and Kelebogile Zvobgo
What accounts for the creation, design, and outcomes 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 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 origins, inputs, and outputs. We theorize that autocrats establish self-investigating commissions, which collect information about atrocities by regime members in response to threats to their symbolic authority and install rival-investigating commissions, which collect information about atrocities by regime opponents 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 outcomes. Self-investigating commissions are afforded weak investigative powers and produce reports that obscure basic facts, such as the extent of abuses and the parties responsible. Meanwhile, rival-investigating commissions are granted strong investigative powers 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 strong support.
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) processes have spread rapidly around the world. Scholars cite this trend as evidence of an accountability norm. Yet, TJ’s spread does not necessarily imply norm diffusion and acceptance; it can also be explained by instrumental adaptation. Essentially, TJ adoption may reflect 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’ operation, 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 substance and performance, we study truth commissions, generally the first TJ measures implemented after political violence, and we focus on Africa, home to one-third of 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 commissions that are ill-equipped to uncover the truth. Consequently, they have served to (re)produce, rather than combat, impunity.
Authors: Daniel Posthumus** and Kelebogile Zvobgo
**IJL Fellow at William & Mary
Listen to an interview from February 2021 on The World podcast
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 mature democracies, we introduce new quantitative data from the Varieties of Truth Commissions Project on truth commissions in an overlooked but potentially significant case: the United States. The data capture nearly twenty past, present and proposed official U.S. truth commissions, most of them at the subnational level. Though their mandates differ 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 U.S. racial violence and injustice.
"Confronting Truth: A Theory of Transitional Justice in Established Democracies"
**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 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.
Governing Truth: NGOs and the Politics of Transitional Justice (book project)
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, Guatemala, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. Additional fieldwork in South Africa and Timor-Leste is forthcoming.
"Producing Truth: Public Memory Projects in Post-Violence Societies."
Authors: Alexandra Byrne,** 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.