Handa center fellow examines transitional justice at the local level

Adam Kochanski

Research fellow Adam Kochanski joined the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice one year ago after completing his Ph.D. in Political Studies from the University of Ottawa. 

Since coming to Stanford, Adam has expanded upon his doctoral research on transitional justice, which he defines as "the ways societies emerging from authoritarian rule or civil conflict deal with large-scale or systematic human rights violations that transpired during times of political unrest." He is especially interested in understanding local transitional justice processes and the delicate, complex relationship between local and global actors in post-conflict peacebuilding.  In this Q&A, he shares some of the projects he has been working on and what he has learned over the course of his fellowship.

It’s been a year since you joined the Handa Center for Human Rights & International Justice. What have you been up to?

I spent a significant portion of the past year working on my book project entitled, “Justice Deflected: The Uses and Abuses of Local Transitional Justice Processes,” which is based on my doctoral dissertation. I also revised two of the chapters from the book into article-length pieces that I submitted for peer review. The talk I recently gave was based on the first of these articles to appear in print, which was very rewarding. I also spent time immersing myself in the Handa Center and the broader Stanford communities. A highlight was seeing the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan speak about global order at the Hoover Institute last year, which ended up being one of his final public lectures. 

You recently delivered a talk about an article you wrote summarizing the findings of your doctoral research titled, “The ‘Local Turn’ in Transitional Justice: Curb the Enthusiasm.” What is the article about?

The article takes stock of the turn toward local agency and participation in both the practice and the study of transitional justice. It traces the diffusion of this turn in scholarly debates and policy developments over time. While scholars and practitioners tend to be optimistic about local transitional justice prospects, the article contends that we don’t know enough to sustain strong assertions about their impact and implores scholars to take a more nuanced view. In particular, it argues for more attention to the politics and veiled power dynamics that underlie and shape transitional justice practices on the ground, which on the surface may appear to be locally owned.

How do you define the "local"?

I above all see the local as a social space where interaction between actors—local, national, and global—is shaped by implicit norms and rules governing appropriate and inappropriate conduct and discourse about wartime events. This space is spatially bound to the locales where mass crimes have taken place, whether it is a district, commune, or village. Associated local transitional justice practices bring together a variety of societal actors into an open-ended process that aims to advance justice, reconciliation, and memory. These often tap into profound traditional symbols and rituals, and are supported by national governments or international donors.

Can you provide some real-world examples of transitional justice mechanisms?

Transitional justice can take many forms. It includes efforts to prosecute war criminals at the International Criminal Court and other war crimes tribunals, such as those for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; truth commissions in Argentina, Guatemala, South Africa, and elsewhere; lustration policies meant to purge communist conspirators from office in Eastern Europe; and increasingly a variety of informal mechanisms, such as the gacaca community courts in Rwanda that were created to address the country’s exceptional genocide justice dilemma and Acholi reconciliation rituals in northern Uganda meant to reintegrate Lord’s Resistance Army combatants.

Why does this topic intrigue you?

Having done my Ph.D. in Political Studies, with a concentration in International Relations, I’m fascinated by the global spread of ideas. The emergence and rapid acceptance of an “accountability norm” is one of the most dramatic recent examples of this phenomenon. While perpetrators had enjoyed immunity for grave violations for many decades, the post-Cold War period has introduced a new era of holding perpetrators accountable, establishing the truth about serious crimes, and succoring the survivors of mass atrocities. A “no-action” policy is no longer defensible when large-scale abuses take place, and it’s now uncommon for any country undergoing a transition to not face calls for some accountability mechanism, as witnessed in recent peace talks in Colombia, Central African Republic, and Sri Lanka.

How has your outlook on transitional justice changed since you started your research?

I’ve been studying and thinking about transitional justice for a decade, so I’ve had the chance to see the field’s meteoric rise during this time and undergo somewhat of a legitimacy crisis more recently that has been highlighted by threats from several, mostly African, countries to leave the Rome Statute of the ICC. Initially, I was a starry-eyed idealist and saw transitional justice as a panacea for addressing some of the dilemmas facing post-conflict states. Over time though, I became more attuned to the hidden political and power dynamics that undergird these processes. While it’s made the study of TJ more interesting from a political science perspective, I’m less hopeful now than when I started about the field’s ability to overcome these hurdles in today’s geopolitical climate.

What has your experience been like working in the Handa Center? What have you learned?

I’ve really enjoyed taking up my Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the Handa Center. The center is growing rapidly thanks to dedicated staff, scholars, and students. It’s quickly establishing itself as a dynamic hub for human rights policy and cutting-edge research on pressing international justice-related issues ranging from human rights trafficking to digital technologies. There’s something new and unexpected to learn on any given day because you never really know who will come through the office whether it’s an everyday chat with one of the Center’s superbly gifted and highly motivated undergraduate human rights minors or a prominent international human rights leader, such as Navi Pillay, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It’s one of the great privileges of being here at Stanford!

What are you hoping to accomplish in the upcoming year?

I’m working on a few new initiatives this year that I’m really excited about, in addition to completing the book project. In late March, I’m co-organizing a workshop at the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association in Toronto that will explore the role of non-state actors in justice and peacebuilding efforts. It’s bringing together a leading group of scholars and practitioners from around the world to look at the normative stakes and policy implications of private actors effectively abdicating state responsibility in these areas in twelve in-depth cases located on four continents. I’ll also be working on two new articles from my doctoral field research: the first examining the use of amnesties in Mozambique, and the second on gender-based violence under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I’m also very eager for any collaboration opportunities with scholars based at Stanford, so please feel welcome to say hello at the Handa Center or to reach out to me by e-mail akochanski [at] stanford.edu or Twitter @adamkochanski

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m Canadian! So, when I’m not working on transitional justice, you’ll find me outside hiking at a National Park, exploring California’s dramatic coastline, or checking out a new city in the United States. Like many, I live in San Francisco and commute to Stanford every day, which gives me an opportunity to bike daily and catch up on the latest developments in Canadian politics.