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Closing the Books: Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective

Elster, Jon
June 4, 2015

Source: (2004) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

As Jon Elster defines the matter, transitional justice consists of the processes of trials, purges, and reparations that take place after the change from one political regime to another. More specifically, when an autocratic regime is overturned, transitional justice involves several goals and tasks for the new regime: holding the old regime accountable and blocking its future influence; building a new and better government and society; and dealing with victims of the old regime. In this book, Elster focuses on the two backward-looking aspects of transitional justice – those that relate to addressing past wrongdoings and sufferings. He only deals with the forward-looking aspects (such as economic reconstruction and constitution making) to the extent they interact with the backward-looking ones. In focusing on backward-looking issues, he seeks to describe and explain variations in how societies close their “open” accounts from the past after regime transitions. The book is organized into two broad sections. Part I looks at “the universe of transitional justice.” In this part, Elster considers the restoration of democracy in Athens in 411 and again in 403 B.C., the measures for retribution and reparation that took place in France after the two restorations of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814 and 1815, and transitional justice in other cases (mainly in transitions to democracy in the twentieth century). Part II covers what Elster calls “the analytics of transitional justice.” In this part, he reflects in a more conceptual manner on the structure of transitional justice, wrongdoers, victims, constraints, emotions, and politics.


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