Racial Reckoning in the United States: Expanding and Innovating on the Global Transitional Justice Experience | BY ASHLEY QUARCOO and MEDINA HUSAKOVIĆ

As the United States reckons with its history of racial injustice, experiences in reform from Brazil, South Africa, and Northern Ireland can shed light on best practices to remedy state-sanctioned violence and discrimination. Ashley Quarcoo and Medina Husaković draw lessons about the best tools that government and civil society can use to advance racial justice. https://ceip.org/p-85638

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SUMMARY

The United States is in a profound moment of public reckoning with its history of racial injustice. In the time since George Floyd’s murder, national and local initiatives seeking truth, redress, and reform (TRR) for historical racial injustices have multiplied across the country. These efforts include national proposals for a truth, racial healing, and transformation commission and a reparations commission, as well as dozens of subnational initiatives on reparations, truth, and reform. Diverse in form, these efforts are united in their goal of seeking remedies for state-sanctioned racial violence and discrimination.

This emergent TRR movement is drawing deeply from the field of transitional justice. Transitional justice is a global practice designed to help countries reconcile with a history of past human rights abuses. While it is traditionally used in countries transitioning from conflict and authoritarianism, U.S. stakeholders are adapting its tools—like truth commissions, reparations, and institutional reforms—as well as its lessons for local purposes. This working paper investigates the transitional justice approaches and lessons most relevant for the United States’ TRR community in the present moment through three case studies: Brazil, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. Together, these case studies surface a number of lessons, relevant for both practitioners and donors, on initiating and sustaining TRR initiatives appropriate for the U.S. context.

The case study of Brazil reveals the importance of confronting the legacies of amnesty and the ways in which amnesty can license collective forgetting about the brutality and impacts of past harms. The study also demonstrates the tremendous contributions that subnational truth commissions make in generating rich, new findings that complicate a larger narrative, as well as in developing locally relevant recommendations. In failing to fully capitalize on subnational contributions, the case of Brazil also demonstrates the importance of coordinating subnational and national TRR efforts and in leveraging a national commission to integrate and amplify local findings.

South Africa provides a powerful example of how a truth commission can be a vessel for reshaping public memory and national identity, using nationally televised public hearings, emotional victim testimony, and respected national leaders to engage the population. However, South Africa’s case also shows the limits of a process that focused predominantly on individual human rights violations and invested less in investigating both the structural factors that enabled those abuses and the socioeconomic dimensions of harm. With the proper mandate, resources, and protocols, institutional hearings can be a critical tool for truth commissions to engage in analysis of structural harms.

Finally, the case study of Northern Ireland demonstrates the potential limits of truth telling and the importance of focusing on reforms that remedy the relationship between the state and the citizens that have been harmed by its actions and policies. Northern Ireland’s Independent Commission on Policing pioneered a new approach to policing based on community partnership, human rights, and accountability that has led to measurable change in public opinion toward the police. Further, Northern Ireland’s success in addressing socioeconomic drivers of conflict can be traced to its affirmative approach to mainstreaming the goal of economic equality into its governance systems.

Together, these cases reveal important ways that the United States can learn from and innovate on the global practice of transitional justice as it seeks to capture the opportunity of this moment.