Reconciliation(s): Transitional Justice in Postconflict Societies

By Laplante, Lisa J. | Law & Society Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Reconciliation(s): Transitional Justice in Postconflict Societies


Laplante, Lisa J., Law & Society Review


Reconciliation(s): Transitional Justice in Postconflict Societies. By Joanna R. Quinn, ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009. 313 pp. $95.00 cloth.

What is reconciliation in postconflict settings? This contested question perplexes scholars in the field of transitional justice (TJ), which generally concerns itself with how nations address a past of widespread human rights violations during episodes of violence and the breakdown of the rule of law and democracy. Since its debut some 20 years ago, the discipline of TJ has generated a growing body of literature that continues to outpace the estimated 40 countries that have opted to pursue judicial and nonjudicial mechanisms like truth commissions, reparations, criminal trials, and institutional reform, among other measures, to prevent new cycles of violence (Hayner 2010). Often these articles, books, and chapters examine the theory and case studies of TJ, all the while making passing reference to ''reconciliation'' as an overarching aim of these national political processes. Conveying grand promises to return societies to ''normalcy,'' reconciliation has become the focal point of the TJ movement (Sarkin & Daly 2004). Yet despite the great deference displayed in the canon of TJ literature, readers are often left puzzling over the exact definition of reconciliation. Moreover, despite this lacuna in clarity, few academics venture into this uncharted land of confronting the topic of reconciliation head-on.

For that reason, I was intrigued that Joanna R. Quinn bravely took on the challenge of tackling this daunting ground by making reconciliation the central theme of her edited volume Reconcilia- tion(s): Transitional Justice in Postconflict Societies. As Quinn explains in her introduction, the invited authors all attempt to ''come to terms with the many-headed beast that is reconciliation'' (p. 12). Quinn and her cohorts respond to the fact that in the last 20 years reconciliation has come to assume ''multiple meanings and understandings'' (p. 290) but that ''those within the transitional justice community have not settled on any one particular definition of reconciliation'' (p. 5). Quinn herself candidly reveals her own grappling with defining the term: ''What, then, of this thing called reconciliation? In past writing and teaching, I have been reluctant to address the issue of reconciliation for a couple of reasons: first, even with the innumerable articles and books available on the subject, the definition of reconciliation has proven illusive, and I have never understood completely just what 'reconciliation' was supposed to be'' (p. 182). Thus, Quinn enlists the contributing authors of Reconciliation(s) to figure out what reconciliation looks like and how transitioning nations get there, all beginning with the premise that ''reconciliation can mean very different things to different people . . . the contributing authors agree, however, that, at its heart, reconciliation is about building relationships of trust and cohesion'' (p. 5).

Practitioners and academics alike, the authors represent a variety of disciplines (education, political science, philosophy, theology, law, psychology), which inevitably means a rich combination of styles, methodologies, and analytical frameworks. This composition could potentially frustrate a reader eager for a set paradigm for framing reconciliation, but then again the diversity of perspectives merely symbolizes the dynamism of reconciliation, incapable of being captured by just one interpretive ''notional lens'' (p. 12). Alternatively, there is a style to suit each reader's preference: theoretical and philosophical ruminations, case-based inquiries, anthropological thick description and nuanced observation, and political-legal frameworks for testing political models and hypotheses, among others.

Indeed, Quinn notes that many of the chapters test ''how realities of TJ correspond to conceptual arguments'' (p. …

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