Professor Lawrence Douglas in his office
Lawrence Douglas, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought

After war or civil unrest or the collapse of an authoritarian regime, citizens are often left with a hard question: “What now?”

Lawrence Douglas, Amherst’s James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, along with colleagues at Rutgers University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, is working on a handbook aimed at helping such countries and communities find their way.

Amherst recently hosted the third and final workshop for a team of 50 scholars contributing to The Oxford Handbook of Transitional Justice, slated for submission to Oxford University Press later this year.

“We really hope it will be the defining book in the field,” Douglas says.

The book grew out of discussions Douglas had with colleagues Jens Meierhenrich, associate professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, and Alexander Laban Hinton, professor of anthropology and global affairs at Rutgers, beginning five years ago. The professors share similar interests and specialties: much of Douglas’s research is devoted to how war crimes trials respond to mass atrocities, and Hinton, a scholar on the Khmer Rouge tribunal, heads Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Meierhenrich who taught at Harvard previously, recently published The Remnants of the Rechtsstaat: an Ethnography of Nazi Law for Oxford.

The trio felt it was time for a comprehensive, unique guidebook to “transitional justice”—the ways in which a country, region or community may re-establish justice in the aftermath of historic injustice.

There is no simple recipe for success when it comes to negotiating a path from authoritarianism to democracy.

Since the coining of the term in the late 1990s, the notion of transitional justice has engendered a body of scholarship, but it has also become a buzzword, Douglas says.

“There are a lot of assumptions, ideas such as truth commissions providing reconciliation and closure to victims of systematic state-sponsored abuse, and this kind of vocabulary of catharsis, closure, healing. All of this, I think, has ossified, and needs to be rethought,” he says. “Can we really expect things like truth commissions or criminal trials to provide anything like closure or catharsis?”

“There is also an assumption within transitional justice," Douglas adds, "that things always move toward greater democratization. And we’ve seen that’s not necessarily the case.” 

The goal of the handbook is to examine those unexamined assumptions. Douglas hopes that students will study the handbook in classrooms and that the text will “be used as a standard reference for scholars, and for practitioners, for people in NGOs, human rights organizations.”

Some 50 scholars—including Amherst’s Adam Sitze, associate professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought and author of The Impossible Machine: A Genealogy of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—have been engaged in preparing sections for the handbook. “One of the things we made clear to the contributors is it’s not meant to be a narrow book about policy prescriptions,” Douglas says. “It’s meant to engage in a granular, critical assessment of the field, of its goals, of its methodologies, of its assumptions.”

“I think also one of the goals is to be more nuanced in avoiding grand generalizations like, ‘Truth commissions are inevitably successful.’ No, they’re not inevitably successful, and a lot of it turns on things on the ground. There is no simple recipe for success when it comes to negotiating a path from authoritarianism to democracy.”