by Maciej BartkowskiJanuary 30, 2018
People often look to elites to understand whether and how transitional justice — a special process that allows victims of systemic crimes and large-scale human rights abuses to seek justice during the transition from the end of violent conflict to peace — will be realized in a society.
But a top-down perspective focused on the roles of prominent individuals, institutions, and international power-brokers overlooks a critical driver of transitional justice: the activism of the affected population.
Similar to the history of specific human rights norms and treaties (e.g. anti-slavery laws, labor, women, children or indigenous people’s rights), transitional justice has often been pushed from the bottom up — not because of, but rather despite opposition from domestic elites and institutions, and despite a hands-off attitude from the international community. In other words, where governments fall short of rights and justice, ordinary people step in, organize, wage civil resistance campaigns, and collectively force the status-quo adherents to change their behavior and laws.
A notable example of the transitional justice process being pushed forward by civil resistance and mobilized civil society groups is the case of Brazil.
Despite the fact that the Brazilian military dictatorship ended more than 30 years ago, Brazilians have yet to see the military held accountable for the serious human rights violations it committed during its 21-year rule. Various truth and justice initiatives in the 1990s failed to break through the amnesty law that the military regime passed in 1979 to protect itself against future criminal prosecution.
In 2009, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva proposed a new bill establishing the National Truth Commission (CNV), which eventually became a law in 2011. However, the mandate of the commission was diluted and weakened under the pressure of the military and its political allies.
In response to this breakdown, civic groups mobilized in defense of the commission and for truth about crimes the military committed. In 2013, street actions for social, economic, and political justice were met with heavy repression which ultimately backfired, reinvigorating public discussion about the historical role of security forces in suppressing civic and political rights and covering up their criminal conduct during the dictatorship.
A growing civic mobilization in support of the CNV, spearheaded by the student movement Levante Popular de Juventude (the Popular Uprising of the Youth) and the Frente de Esculacho Popular (Popular Front Esculacho), led to the innovative social action known as esculachos. Esculachos are an act of public shaming, in which flash mobs, demonstrations and performances take place in front of the homes or workplaces of those who are known to have participated in torture and other crimes during the military regime. This form of resistance was borrowed from Argentina where it was used in the 1980s to denounce impunity and push for greater accountability of the Argentinian military for its past crimes.
These acts are designed to be dramatic and spectacular to draw public and media attention. Participants carry placards naming specific former military officers who committed crimes. They spray-paint messages on the pavement in front of these individuals’ homes, stating that a torturer lives there. They post photos of victims on the houses of alleged crime perpetrators, reenact torture and degrading treatment to which victims were subjected, and lead noisy marches accompanied by music and banners with the popular slogan: “Se não há justiça, há esculacho popular!” (“If there is no justice, there is esculacho”).
Although such practices can be criticized as ‘justice of the street’ or ‘mass vigilantism’, as long as they disrupt while remaining nonviolent, they keep the perpetrators in the limelight and help keep public memory of the victims and committed crimes alive. They also indirectly defend the National Truth Commission and ensure that the process of restorative justice, even though greatly delayed, will continue.
In her recent ICNC monograph, Elizabeth Wilson brings up cases in Greece and Argentina after the fall of their dictatorships to illustrate how transitional justice in these countries was advanced by coalitions of civic groups and victim-led campaigns — despite elites’ intransigence. Many other examples of the role and impact of grassroots mobilization and civil resistance actions on transitional justice exist in Chile, South Africa, Indonesia, Nepal or Ukraine, yet none of these have been thoroughly documented and examined.
What all these cases point to is that transitional justice must not be seen as merely an elitist, top-down project that emerges during democratization. In fact, civil resistance movements that have had a positive impact on democratic transition (see here and here) are often authentic and powerful forces behind transitional justice. They fight oppression within the positive constraints of nonviolent action — and they do so well before democratization occurs. They also set an example for other civic groups to continue the struggle once the transition and democratic consolidation begin — where public memory of committed crimes, respect for victims, and restorative justice are in their most vulnerable state and in greatest need of being defended.
Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is a Senior Advisor to ICNC. He works on academic programs to support teaching, research and study on civil resistance. He is a series editor of the ICNC Monographs and ICNC Special Reports, and book editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. You can follow him @macbartkow