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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

*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. 

(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

**IJL Fellow at William & Mary


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.

"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.

Under review.

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.

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

Under review.

Authors: Shauna GilloolyDaniel 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.

"Historical Violence and Public Attitudes Toward Justice"

Under review.

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

  • Read a related article from June 2019 in The Conversation

What is the impact of historical violence on people's attitudes toward proposed transitional justice (TJ) policies? Scholarship demonstrates that direct exposure to violence influences political attitudes like trust in government. But little work considers the relationship between historical violence and TJ attitudes among descendant communities. We conduct a survey experiment on justice for racial terror lynchings, drawing on a sample of Black Americans in Maryland, USA, where a truth commission has recently been convened to address lynchings. We find that respondents exposed to information on historical lynching violence are more likely to support symbolic TJ measures (e.g., apologies and memorial markers) than respondents exposed to information on contemporary police violence. Regarding material TJ policies (e.g., monetary compensation and community projects), we find no notable difference between groups. Our research contributes to scholarship on racial violence and racial justice in American politics and scholarship on TJ in comparative and international politics.

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

In progress.

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 the removal of  monuments, the installation of museums, and the inauguration of national days of remembrance. We develop a typology and inductively generate a theory of the political contests and conflicts that are likely to be triggered by different memory projects, contests and conflicts that we expect influence the likelihood of project initiation and completion. We conduct an initial probe of our theory using the new data.

"Confronting Truth: A Theory of 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 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 manuscript)

Revise and resubmit.

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.

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