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Dealing with our violent past. Should historical commissions be understood as cases of transitional justice?

Consolidated democracies are increasingly facing pressures to come to terms with their violent pasts. Faced with this burden, stakeholders are increasingly looking for ways to move from dominant and oppressive narratives about the past towards spaces for contestation and competing narratives. The establishment of Historical Commissions, as well as the invocation of transitional justice rhetoric have taken flight in consolidated democracies. But not all historical commissions are instances of transitional justice and framing them as such is not without consequences. The overreliance on the adoption of transitional justice language impacts and conditions the way in which consolidated democracies approach the processes of inquiry into the past, but we do not have a good understanding of the implications thereof.

This project examines the unforeseen and unintended effects of framing historical commissions, like the Parliamentary Commission on Belgium’s colonial legacy, as transitional justice. The project adopts mixed-method research consisting of desk-based research, database construction, and an in-depth analysis of a case study through empirical research and semi-structured interviews.

As consolidated democracies are now de facto becoming the bulk of transitional justice interventions, this research is being proposed at a crucial point in time. Taking into account that the relationship between transitional justice and historical commissions has not yet been explored, this research will provide a systematic approach that will be key for policy-makers, legislators, and practitioners at the time of designing new commissions aimed to foster more stable and inclusive societies.

President Joseph Kasa-Vubu speaks at the independence ceremony for the Congo (30 June 1960)


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