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Discourse of Justice: Part I

What do human rights defenders think of transitional justice?


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

The durable end of an armed conflict comes first through the negotiation of a ceasefire, and second, through the ways in which the government in power handles that peace. Civil war is violence, experienced, and the former fighters in a conflict may be willing to pick up arms again if they see the worst of their enemies walking free afterward. Transitional justice can address this, by allowing post-war regimes to reconcile the harms of the past, but it can fail if the victorious side after war instead reneges on its promises.

When that happens, aggrieved parties can take action in the name of human rights, changing the politics of the country and demanding more durable change. Human rights discourse is politics by other means.

In Colombia, human rights discourse is contesting the political space by demanding a multiethnic polity under the protection of the law.

Such is one conclusion from “The Popular Appeal of Human Rights Activism: Reimagining Transitional Justice as a Political Struggle,” an upcoming paper by Frank Richard Georgi. Georgi looks to human rights discourse as a way for marginalized groups to do politics, and bend a bad status quo toward a more workable future.

Georgi contents that “human rights defenders imagine transitional justice in terms of a larger political struggle that exceeds justice for past atrocities,” and that this struggle can be seen in three tropes: “truth as the frontier of political confrontation with right-wing elites, the ‘rights-defending victim’ as a form of popular subjectivity and political underdog, and liberal overhaul of corrupted democratic institutions.”

This makes human rights discourse a complicating factor in conversations around populism, as the universal language of human rights is used to call for and contest rights on a popular basis. It is also an argument against populism as solely a term to describe movements among the political right, which claim popular appeal to attack elites and also narrow the scope of who gets counted and benefits from being a citizen. If marginalized people adopt universal language of inclusion to assert their right in a political space, that is not an elite-driven phenomena but rather a genuine and inclusive understanding of populism.

Georgi’s study is focused on Latin America broadly and Colombia narrowly, where resistance to governments of the right have been a staple of multi-ethnic coalitions for years. While right-populism focuses on the obligation of the state to a select portion of the population, with boundaries tightly policed, Georgi sees human rights discourse as contesting the space by demanding a multiethnic polity under the protection of law.

“[T]he political struggle of Human Rights Discourses] does not defy pluralism and liberal institutions — as postulated in prevalent populism research — but, quite the contrary, defines legality and basic rights as the horizon of their struggle against unbounded, authoritarian rule,” Georgi writes.

The idea is explained even more concisely by Martin, a lifelong activist, who answers Georgi’s question about the goal of transitional justice as ““¡Democracia!” Or, as Georgi puts it, marginalized groups using the language of human rights to demand change are calling for a “‘different democracy,’ where people can disagree without being stigmatized or killed, where the rights of indigenous people and afro-descendent communities are as respected as the land claims of small peasants and workers’ rights.”

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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