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How “Transitions” Reshaped Human Rights: A Conceptual History of Transitional Justice

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 31, Number 2, May 2009
pp. 321-367 | 10.1353/hrq.0.0069



This article clarifies the origins of the field of transitional justice and its preliminary conceptual boundaries. I argue that the field began to emerge in the late 1980s, as a consequence of new practical conditions that human rights activists faced in countries such as Argentina, where authoritarian regimes had been replaced by more democratic ones. The turn away from “naming and shaming” and toward accountability for past abuse among human rights activists was taken up at the international level, where the focus on political change as “transition to democracy” helped to legitimate those claims to justice that prioritized legal-institutional reforms and responses—such as punishing leaders, vetting abusive security forces, and replacing state secrecy with truth and transparency—over other claims to justice that were oriented toward social justice and redistribution. I end by discussing the many ways in which these initial conceptual boundaries have since been tested and expanded.

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