Justice in Times of Transition: Lessons from the Iberian Experience

A key contention of the transitional justice movement is that the more comprehensive and vigorous the effort to bring justice to a departed authoritarian regime the better the democratizing outcome will be. This essay challenges this view with empirical evidence from the Iberian Peninsula. In Portugal, a sweeping policy of purges intended to cleanse the state and society of the authoritarian past nearly derailed the transition to democracy by descending into a veritable witch-hunt. In Spain, by contrast, letting bygones be bygones, became a foundation for democratic consolidation. These counter-intuitive examples suggest that there is no pre-ordained outcome to transitional justice, and that confronting an evil past is neither a requirement nor a pre-condition for democratization. This is primarily because the principal factors driving the impulse toward justice against the old regime are political rather than ethical or moral. In Portugal, the rise of transitional justice mirrored the anarchic politics of the revolution that lunched the transition to democracy. In Spain, the absence of transitional justice reflected the pragmatism of a democratic transition anchored on compromise and consensus.

The article analyses peacebuilding theories and methods, as applied to justice system reform in post-conflict scenarios. In this respect, the international authorities involved in the reconstruction process may traditionally choose between either a ‘dirigiste’ or a consent-based approach, representing the essential terms of reference of past interventions. However, features common to most reconstruction missions, and relatively poor results, confirm the need for a change in the overall strategy. This requires international donors to focus more on the demand for justice at local levels than on the traditional supply of financial and technical aid for reforms. The article stresses the need for effectively promoting the local ownership of the reform process, without this expression being merely used by international actors as a political umbrella under which to protect themselves from potential failures.