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The Overall Impact of Transitional Justice in the Asia-Pacific

When we consider the overall impact that transitional justice processes and practices have had on human rights, peace and democracy in the Asia- Pacific, Payne and Sikkink’s large-A studies produce somewhat different results to the case studies included in this volume. Rather than confirming that transitional justice has a simple, positive effect, the assessments provided by our case study authors are decidedly more mixed. Here contributors have made two different sets of judgments, about the level of accountability for past human rights violations achieved, and about the effects of transitional justice mechanisms on human rights, democracy and peace. In the first instance, a range of different outcomes were observed. While South Korea and the Solomon Islands fared reasonably well in terms of achieving accountability, Sri Lanka and Aceh performed poorly. East Timor and Cambodia experienced mixed results, with some limited accountability achieved and, inevitably, disappointment expressed over those limitations. In the cases of Cambodia and the Solomon Islands, any success in achieving accountability has been tempered by the significant problems associated with the criminal justice processes undertaken. In the Solomon Islands the process faced criticism for its selectiveness and adversarial nature, while in Cambodia the sense that the ECCC is ‘generally fair, having been conducted according to accepted standards of international due process’ has been accompanied by concerns over corruption, government tampering and a lack of adequate funding.17

When it comes to the outcomes achieved by the transitional justice processes and practices implemented in the Asia-Pacific cases, for human rights, peace and democracy, it is unclear whether a correlation exists between levels of accountability and outcomes. On one hand, in the cases of South Korea, the Solomon Islands and Sri Lanka, relationships between accountability and outcomes seem apparent. While substantial improvements in human rights, democracy and/or peace have followed transitional justice measures in the Solomon Islands and South Korea, ‘the quality of democracy, human rights, and rule of law have been progressively degraded’ in Sri Lanka, where little accountability has been achieved.18 On the other hand, however, Aceh has enjoyed improvements in human rights, democracy and peace without significant accountability for past human rights violations. What is more, even where relationships between accountability and positive outcomes have been identified, contributors were cautious in explicitly stating that the transitional justice process had been a success.

What explains this cautious assessment of the success of transitional justice processes and practices in the region provided by our case studies? There are three possible explanations for this. First, as the majority of transitional justice measures undertaken in the region are relatively recent, it may be too early to discern or analyse their effects. Most large- scale global analyses of transitional justice mechanisms and their effects employ datasets stretching back to the 1970s and are thus able to capture the long-term outcomes associated with particular approaches. Indeed, most assessments of the outcomes produced by transitional justice processes measure impact five and ten years after the event. Of the cases examined in this volume, Cambodia and the Solomon Islands still have transitional justice processes underway with the ECCC and TRC respectively, while less than ten years have elapsed since either a transition or the last use of a transitional justice mechanism in Sri Lanka, Aceh, East Timor and South Korea. It thus seems that time will tell whether the approaches employed by the states of the Asia-Pacific will ultimately bring benefits for peace, democracy and human rights.

Second, the discrepancy we have identified between the assessments of the outcomes of transitional justice processes between Payne and Sikkink’s analysis and those of our case study contributors may also be the result of the different methods used. In particular, it may be the case that impact is a more complicated social phenomenon than can be accurately measured and operationalised with indices such as the Political Terror Scale, the CIRI Personal Integrity Rights index, or the Polity IV democracy score. Third, and finally, there is also the issue of what constitutes ‘success’. How successful does a transitional justice practice or process have to be before we will declare it a success? Here the assessments provided by our authors highlight the difficulties associated with making judgments of success and failure. On the one hand, it seems remiss to overlook any advances for human rights, peace and democracy achieved by implementing a transitional justice process. After all, any improvement constitutes some degree of success. On the other hand, however, is the concern that any declaration of success will overshadow problems that remain without redress, marginalise negative outcomes that have worsened some areas of concern, and foster complacency regarding the pursuit of accountability. As with the pursuit of transitional justice, ‘balance’ seems to be the key here.

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