On the Limits of Transitional Justice—Reflections on ‘Recalibrating Listening: Of Trees as Subjects of Pain’

From the Series: Echos of Earthly Suffering in Transitional Justice: Revisiting the Soundings of Colombia's Truth Commission

Image courtesy of Alejandro Jaramillo.

I feel confident that nowhere in the voluminous literature of that most booming of academic disciplines, transitional justice, can one locate a reference to that most exacting Anglo-American novelist, Henry James. But as a human rights practitioner much preoccupied with the field of transitional justice, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about James and his famous description of certain massive nineteenth-century novels by the likes of Tolstoy and Dumas as ‘large, loose, baggy monsters’.[1] James was of course referring here to the sheer amplitude of these fictionstheir tendency to become great repositories of everything and anything; packed to the hilt with tangled sub-plots, digressive histories, social commentaries, and authorial editorializing. In considering the trajectory of the transitional justice research and publication explosion during the past two decades or more, I sometimes feel tempted to adapt James’s taglineand to think of transitional justice as a ‘large, loose, baggy, hungry monster’ roaming at large within the broader fields of conflict transformation, peace studies, human rights, development, and humanitarianism. Such has been its predominance in scholarship across those afore-mentioned fields (and its attractive force among new and ambitious researchers) that transitional justice often seems poised to grab hold of and gobble up just about every new trend going in academia. It’s perhaps not surprising then to discover that the transitional justice monster’s current plat du jour is the global climate emergency and urgent environmental concern.

I don’t wish to sound cynical hereand I hasten to add that this latest wave of transitional scholarship is by no means unwelcome. For the past thirty years, transitional justice has been the focus of my own work as a human rights practitioner, and I would be the first to defend its value as a dynamic, multi-faceted process crucial to dealing imaginatively and comprehensively with a violent past. Recent academic publications that reckon with post-conflict demands for the repair of war-damaged lands and waters (and the social and economic consequences of such devastation on often highly vulnerable populations), as well as the application of rights theories to non-human actors like mountains, rivers, and forests represent a genuine, deeply thoughtful extension of the transitional justice paradigm into fresh and fascinating territories. For example, the premiere academic journal in the field, the International Journal of Transitional Justice (IJTJ), has recently published an excellent, thought-provoking Special Section on ‘Transitional Justice and Nature: A Curious Silence.’ Each article in this collection makes for indispensable reading for anyone engaged with these pressing questions and open to learning more about ground-breaking approaches to what Janine Natalya Clark some years ago ventured might be viewed as a ‘green’ transitional justice (Clark 2016).

Most of the IJTJ articles referred to above deal specifically with Colombiaa context that has been aptly termed ‘an important laboratory in transitional restorative justice’ and the site of a sequence of noteworthy developments now taking a decisive ‘ecocentric turn’ (Ordóňex-Vargas, Peralta Gonzalez, and Prieto-Rios 2023). And after reading Alejandro Castillejo-Cuéllar’s rich and intellectually challenging essay on ‘Recalibrating Listening: Of Trees as Subjects of Pain’ (and related excerpts from the Colombia Truth Commission Report’s chapter on ‘Conversations with Nature’), I am even more convinced that the editors of that IJTJ Special Section are correct in arguing that the Colombian example provides especially compelling support for their belief that:

No longer can transitional justice uphold the view that questions about justice, reparation, historical memory, reconciliation and guarantees of non-repetition begin and end with human beings, their rights and their interests. It is time to disrupt a hegemonic view across transitional justice scholarshiprooted in an anthropocentric dogma embedded in the human rights frameworkthat limits our understanding of the perpetrator, victim and survivor of gross human rights violations to human beings, while excluding consideration for more-than-human factors such as rivers, mountains, oceans, animals, plants and soil. (Viaene, Doran, and Liljeblad 2023)

But the probing questions that Castillejo-Cuéllar raises in his essayand the unforgettable testimonies included in ‘Conversations with Naturenevertheless make me wonder whether we transitional justice scholars and practitioners ought to pause and ask yet more searching questions before allowing our well-fed, ‘large, loose, baggy monster’ to range freely in this particular field without further careful reflection? For me, Castillejo-Cuéllar’s essay makes plain the need to recognize that transitional justice may not always be the most suitable or appropriate paradigm with which to chronicle and take the measure of environmental destruction in the wake of armed conflict or other violence. The familiar tools and standard approaches of transitional justice can certainly do many things in terms of documentation and interpretation in this latest area of enquiryand indeed, it can do them very well (as the IJTJ Special Section demonstrates so vividly). But how effective or even viable are those same tools and approaches when we move beyond the recording and transcription of those exclusively human voices (victim, bystander, perpetrator, et al) customarily identified as being at the center of a crisis or conflict? Will transitional justice always be the optimal vehicle for exploring and understanding ‘…the political space that emerges at the threshold between the audible and the inaudible’ (as Castillejo-Cuéllar names it)? [5] What if that reality exceeds the boundaries of existing theoretical constructsand indeed, the very vocabulary itselfof the transitional justice paradigm?

As we move into this ‘…intermediate terrain between the documentation of human rights violations and the production of other languages to speak about violence’so tantalizingly described by Castillejo-Cuéllar as ‘the murmurs…the “voices’” that are barely perceptible and understandable to us as humans’ (2023)we must surely ask ourselves if transitional justice is always the best vehicle for this undertaking? Might this not be the point in transitional justice’s relatively brief but super-productive history at which we had best curb the appetite of our publication-friendly, ever-peckish beast? As the editors of the IJTJ Special Section have themselves suggested, ‘…dominant publication processes represented by scholarly journals or books may be insufficient to encompass the means of information conveyance used in diverse knowledge systems’ (Viaene, Doran, and Liljeblad 2023).

Castillejo-Cuéllar rightly signals from the start of his essay that attending to testimonies of what he calls ‘non-human suffering’ immediately takes us out of familiar terrain and terminology and into another realm of listening and recording altogetherone where we must begin to ‘…imagine the possibility of trees, forests and spirits as testifying witnesses, as subjects of pain, not subjects of the law’ (2023). His essay powerfully confirms transitional justice scholar Janine Natalya Clark’s assertion in her contribution to the IJTJ Special Section:

…that a more explicitly posthumanist application of visceral geography necessitates listening – and knowing how to listen – to sentient more-than-human worlds and what they are themselves communicating, including through silences and altered soundscapes that offer vital sonic insights into harms caused. (Clark 2023)

Castijello-Cuéllar enjoins us to abandon all familiar categories and classifications as we enter this domain of the ineffable, of the enigmatic, of the sacred, emphasizing that:

…the words “ecology” or “ecosystem,” “environment” or “nature” are technical simplifications of this complexity, where the whistle produced by the wind as it blows through some trees, the sounds of the birds, and the ancestors, are living entities that interact and possess agency in the immediate more-than-human world. They are also subjects who endured pain, more than subjects who possess rights. In this world, trees also hurt, also bleed, and also testify. (Castijello-Cuéllar 2023)

Among the riveting testimonies to the impact of war on the natural world gathered in the Colombian Truth Commission Report chapter, ‘Conversations with Nature’, it is the testimony given by Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in the Amazonian, Pacific, and Caribbean regions of Colombia decrying the deterioration of mangrove forests in the wake of decades of armed conflict which perhaps best illustrates why the modus operandi of transitional justice research as we’ve come to know it somehow feels inadequate here. The speaker’s paean to the wounded mangrove forest underlines the need for an alternative methodology here that captures and communicates more precisely the depths of the damage done to the unique ‘voice’ of this landscapeone that deploys the gifts of the bard, the artist, or the musician rather than those of the social scientist: ‘When the mangrove was dense, the sound was different, tighter: kikiriri. Now the sound is distressing, the breeze goes like, fuuuuu. Before it was sort of swaying, like a dance, like something that gave you pleasure, satisfaction, harmony’.[2]

This is elegy rather than mere documentary evidence; a poem rather than a policy brief. Transitional justice practice frequently generates a literature that is immensely moving, profoundly human, inspiring evenbut it rarely attains the sublime. Who then can more artfully listen to and perhaps even represent the wounded mangrove to the human ear? That task may best be left to someone like acclaimed U.S. composer, John Luther Adams. For several decades, Adams ‘…worked full time as an environmental activist. But the time came when he felt compelled to dedicate himself entirely to music. He made this choice with the belief that, ultimately, music can do more than politics to change the world’.[3] Reporting on the recent New York City premiere of his work, Vespers of the Blessed Earth, critic Joshua Barone noted that:

…Adams has long been a master of creating environments in soundnot tone paintings per se, but immersive, inventive evocations of, for example, bird song, the desert, and most famously, the open water in Become Ocean, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Awe-inspiring, nearly religious to experience, his music is, at its finest, a font of appreciation for forces larger than ourselves. (Barone 2023)

At the conclusion of his Vespers, in a section of the work entitled, ‘Aria of the Ghost Bird,’ Adams has transcribed into his score the call of the vanished Hawaiian Kauai O’o bird (last recorded in 1987, according to Barone) a musical testimony that ‘…unfurls with freedom, its long rests patient, its repeated call beautiful and heartbreakingly lonely’ (Barone 2023). It is this same summons to hear and to respond to some kind of eternalrather than transitionaljustice that we are invited to pursue in a work like Castijello-Cuéllar’s sound installation, Murmullos I, o la Herida de la Naturalezaand it’s a summons which will require human rights practitioners and others to radically enlarge and enrich our hitherto limited conceptions of testimony itself.


[1] Henry James, ‘Preface’ to The Tragic Museavailable at The Literature Network at: https://www.online-literature.com/henry_james/tragic-muse/0/

[2] Conversations with Nature. 2022. Final Report of the Colombian Truth Commission. Available at: https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/conversations-nature

[3] John Luther Adams personal website. Available at https://www.johnlutheradams.net/story


Barone, Joshua. 2023. “Doleful ‘Vespers’ Pray for an Earth in Crisis.” The New York Times, April 2.

Castillejo-Cuéllar, Alejandro. 2023. “Recalibrating Listening: Of Trees as Subjects of Pain.” Visual and New Media Review, Fieldsights, DATE. (Murmullos is a co-production with Andrés Torres.) (ADD LINK)

Clark, Janine Natalya. 2016. “Are There ‘Greener’ Ways of Doing Transitional Justice? Some Reflections on Srebrenica, Nature and Memorialisation.’” The International Journal of Human Rights 20, no. 8: 1206.

———. 2023. “Harm, Relationality and More-than-Human Worlds: Developing the Field of Transitional Justice in New Posthumanist Directions.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 17, no. 1: 15–31.

Ordóňex-Vargas, Laura, L.C. Peralta Gonzalez, and Enrique Prieto-Rios. 2023. “An Ecocentric Turn in the Transitional Restorative Justice Process in Colombia.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 17, no. 1: 107–22.

Viaene, Lieselotte, Peter Doran, and Jonathan Liljeblad. 2023. “Editorial Special Section: ‘Transitional Justice and Nature: A Curious Silence.’” International Journal of Transitional Justice 17, no. 1: 1–14.