Judging State-Sponsored Violence, Imagining Political Change.

Author:Reiter, Andrew G.
Position:Book review
 
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Judging State-Sponsored Violence, Imagining Political Change, Bronwyn Leebaw (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 224 pp., $94 cloth, $33.99 paper.

As states emerge from periods of authoritarianism or civil war they are faced with the daunting task of engaging past political violence. Challenged by competing domestic demands and international pressures, and often hindered by limited resources and the sheer scope of past wrongdoing, states have a range of options at their disposal to engage in the transitional justice process. In her latest book, Bronwyn Leebaw argues that two competing frameworks have come to dominate the field of transitional justice. The first, "human rights legalism," stems from the Nuremberg Trials and stresses the promotion of law, trials, and individual criminal responsibility in the aftermath of atrocity. The second, which she terms "therapeutic restorative justice," has its origins in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) implemented by South Africa following the end of Apartheid, and focuses on repairing society and healing the wounds of the past.

Leebaw is highly critical of these competing approaches, and she is convinced that their emergence as the two dominant paradigms undermines the ability of states to effectively address past political violence. Most problematic for Leebaw is the process of depoliticization inherent in both frameworks, in which violence is stripped from its larger historical and political context. Criminal justice, in particular, is predicated on the notion of laws being applied objectively to past crimes. Moreover, both approaches reinforce the notion of a clear victim-perpetrator divide that ignores many important gray areas of complicity and resistance inherent in political violence. Simply put, transitional justice processes are too often "framed as apolitical responses to the deeds and experiences of individual victims and perpetrators" (p. 92). In making this argument, Leebaw is careful to note that dealing with impunity and trauma are vital tasks and that we should not discard legalism and restorative justice. Rather, it is the way in which these two frameworks have been employed that is problematic, and a new approach is needed.

Consequently, to remedy these deficiencies Leebaw advocates conceptualizing transitional justice as a process of "political judgment." Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, she argues that political judgment involves "action and...

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