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Date of this Version



Ben Taleb, B. “The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice by Colleen Murphy.” Historical Dialogues, Justice, and Memory Network, Columbia University, (April 2019).


Review of The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice. By Colleen Murphy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Over the past few decades, communities around the world have embarked on transitions from conflict, repression and historical injustice to the rule of law and respect for human rights. Societies have established legal institutions, such as truth-telling commissions and criminal trials to confront past abuses and attempt to transition into a new era of human dignity. Theorists have coined the term “transitional justice” to describe processes involved in confronting legacies of historical wrongdoings. Pressing questions raised in such contexts include: what does it mean to properly acknowledge past abuses and how does a community justify the choice of a specific response? It is not obvious which particular type of response is right, or wrong, as transitional justice may mean different things to different people in different contexts. The tasks of evaluating the motley epistemic meanings of “transitional justice” and the appropriate choices communities make are at the heart of Coleen Murphy’s elegant book, The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice. In a combination of rigorous theories and brilliant analytical writing, she argues that the just pursuit of societal transformation is the essential heartbeat of transitional justice. ...

Murphy writes with a clear audience in mind: philosophers, lawyers, transitional justice theorists, policy makers, and citizens of transitional communities. At the author–audience discourse level, the argument of transitional justice as a different kind of justice offers original and compelling grounds. Bolstering the relationship between the two dimensions of societal transformation and the fitting treatment of past wrongdoings is at the core of transitional justice and political reconciliation. Under these circumstances, one may still wonder how much to expect, morally, from “transitional justice” in dealing with colonial legacies and forced dispossession of Indigenous communities in settler societies. Where does transitional justice begin and where does it end? What are the appropriate standards of justice to use when evaluating the complex set of institutional and interpersonal in settler nations? Is still it erroneous to think of justice in “post” settler colonial circumstances as involving a moral compromise between truth and justice?

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