Print this Page. Send this Page.

Transitional Justice - The Role of Historical Narrative in Times of Transitions

 May 15 - 17, 2015

Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies
Voßstraße 2, Building 4400, Room 212
69115 Heidelberg, Germany


Transitional Justice - The Role of Historical Narrative in Times of Transitions “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
― George Orwell, 1984


The history of every country contains periods of transition: from war to peace, from a previous to a succeeding government, from an autocratic regime to democratic representation, from colonial domination to independence. Turbulent transitions are often times of violence and chaos conducive to violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. A recurring demand in many transitions has been the need to establish a historical record of the events leading to the unrest and to document the reproachable actions committed during the period in question. Truth in this context mainly denotes the act of historical record-setting but more often than not, what “the truth” is, is fiercely contested.

In the past, various strategies have been pursued to generate historical narratives for transitional periods; each of these strategies, so it seems, comes with certain problematic aspects attached to it. A very salient example is the attempt to set a historical record through criminal prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes. The judicial forum often proves to be a poor one in the pursuit of truth. Criminal trials are meant to establish criminal responsibility and the fact that a trial usually concerns only a single individual means that any narrative generated through it is necessarily limited. Moreover, the confrontational nature of a trial where the prosecutor acts on behalf of a particular national community or even in the name of humanity against a defendant leaves little incentive to provide a balanced or well-rounded depiction of the facts.

Another strategy that seems to counter many of the problems which afflict historical narratives created through prosecutions has been the setting-up of so-called truth commissions. These commissions are non-confrontational in nature and charged with establishing historical truth in a broader sense. Experience has shown, however, that the reports produced by the commissions tend to become the only and “official” narrative of past wrongdoings, crowding out competing narratives.


The different possibilities for creating historical narratives in transitions have been extensively researched under the theory of “transitional justice”. This theoretical framework is helpful in assessing efforts to address past atrocities and has mainly been developed by legal scholars since the 1990s. The study of transitional justice originally developed out of observations made during the regime transitions in South America and has retained a strong regional focus. The finding of historical truth, however, has been an important component of the transitional strategy almost everywhere in the world. While the mechanisms employed to achieve this aim have varied from transition to transition the basic problems to be solved, the most pressing questions to be answered, remained the same. This workshop thus seeks to broaden the discussion by placing special emphasis on the processes of transition that have occurred in both Europa and Asia. To contrast transitional processes in different regions will allow for easier recognition of similarities and differences and challenge the often voiced opinion that the particular historical circumstances found in each nation affected by turmoil make every transition unique to the point where it completely defies comparison.

In addition, the workshop seeks to transcend disciplinary boundaries by turning transitional justice from a realm for legal scholars into a joint research object for scholars from different fields. The workshop will bring together renowned experts from both the historical as well as the legal sciences and use the expertise in both fields to introduce different methodologies and perspectives to the study of transitional justice.


RSS Feeds

RSS FeedEvent Feed