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Accounting for the Past: The Neoliberal Logics of Transitional Justice


Project description


Transitional justice (TJ) emerged in the wake of the third-wave of democracy, which, beginning from the early-1980s, swept across Latin America and Eastern Europe. TJ denotes a range of human rights instruments, including criminal trials and truth commissions, designed to deal with the authoritarian and/or conflict-ridden legacies of societies transitioning to liberal democracy. It has now been assimilated into the peacebuilding paradigm, which prioritises the further entrenchment of a market economy and integration into global markets as a precondition of peace.

Consequently, TJ has both developed and now operates within the limits of ‘neoliberalism’, a globally dominant set of ideas and modes of governing that subjects all social, cultural, and political life to economic modes of accounting and calculation. Although TJ has long had to operate within these constraints, only a relatively small body of critical literature questioning these relationships has emerged in the last decade. As a result, the connections between transitional justice and neoliberalism remain chronically undertheorised in academic debates. Responding to this problem, this project investigates the relationship between neoliberalism, transitional justice, and the limits of social change with a view to developing visions of sustainable futures.

Project Aims

This theoretically driven, empirically grounded project is organised around three interlocking aims. Firstly, noting neoliberalism’s own concern with aggressively expanding the role of markets and economic calculation within the social world, the project intends to critically explore how TJ deploys its own social logic of calculation or accounting to construct, visualise and remedy the past. Indeed, it is common for TJ scholars and practitioners to resort to the metaphor of accounting, for example, through formulations such as ‘historical accounting’ and ‘accounting for the past’ as a way of describing both the social function and moral legitimacy of transitional justice. Taking this metaphor seriously, the project intends to explore the ways TJ conceptualises traumatic histories as a field of social debts (human rights violations) that can be accounted for through legal processes.

The project pursues this line of enquiry with the aim of critically investigating the political implications of transitional justice. Broadly speaking, it investigates whether TJ’s own concern with accounting supports the neoliberal logics of accounting and calculation that are embraced in post-conflict/post-authoritarian contexts during the process of transition.

Finally, the project investigates the possibility of moving beyond this predicament. It explores other practices such as the tradition of Public Debt Auditing and the recent ‘Greek Debt Truth Commission’, which represent alternative forms of social accounting that challenge and resist neoliberal ideas and policies during the process of transition. The project explores how they could be utilised in future to provide alternative modes of TJ that support broader, more egalitarian, conceptions of social change.

Impact Statement

This project constitutes an important intervention into the field of transitional justice. Because it is concerned with exploring new and alternative transitional justice practices, the project may also have a significant impact on TJ policy and practice at the local and international levels. Finally, the project’s broader concern with questions of social change in neoliberal times through the example of TJ will also be of interest to sociologists and social theorists interested in issues of human rights, social change, neoliberalism, and international development.