This post is excerpted from “The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future.” The full version is available at Democracy, and is reprinted here with permission.

The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. This post discusses the second of those seven pillars: Education. Previously I’ve discussed the first three pillars, Economic Growth and Equality, Education, and Security-Sector Reform, and provided an an introduction to the series, which offers an overview of the Arab uprising and its recent aftermath, and provides a high-level sketch of the seven pillars.

Transitional Justice

Transitional justice—commonly defined as the measures employed by post-conflict and post-authoritarian states to cope with legacies of mass abuse and atrocity—has to be an integral part of efforts to consolidate change in the Arab world. Establishing a thorough accounting of past abuses would help lay the foundation for a more accountable political culture and provide a basis for credible national reconciliation.

Transitional or post-conflict justice took form as a discipline in the 1980s and 1990s with several noteworthy efforts, including the truth-and-reconciliation process in South Africa, numerous prosecutorial efforts in Latin America, and the ad hoc international tribunals to address the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These developments produced an emerging consensus that dealing with histories of mass atrocity, abuse, and repression was a necessary prerequisite to creating open and responsive politics and a democratic culture.

What these varied experiences have made clear is that on issues of accountability, there are no rigid formulas for success. National responses to past repression and abuse reflect each country’s particular history and context. Furthermore, the pace of such efforts shows that transitional justice is not solely a concern in the immediate post-authoritarian environment. In fact, prosecutions in Argentina arising from the “dirty war” of the 1970s are still making their way through the criminal-justice system. This stands in contrast to the more immediate nonprosecutorial efforts undertaken by South Africa to address past abuses and repression. And efforts to wholly avoid the past, as in post-Franco Spain, will not necessarily preclude successful democratic transition.

Still, compiling an unimpeachable historical record of abuse, repression, and atrocities is an important step in protecting against authoritarian relapse, particularly during turbulent and inconclusive transition periods when the allure of law and order may propel reactionary politics. These types of initiatives will also play a role in capacity building, since transitional justice involves complex legal and investigatory issues that require the devotion of resources and professionalized attention. Even in instances where transitional justice has fallen short of optimal standards, as was the case with Iraq’s efforts to prosecute Saddam Hussein and key Ba’athist leaders, the effort improved professionalism among investigators, prosecutors, judges, and forensic experts. Finally, such efforts, even if they’re imperfect, can help establish the principle of judicial independence.

Fashioning a political consensus behind transitional justice can be critical for transitioning societies. Relatedly, the facile and cynical use of transitional justice as a means to serve narrow political ends can corrupt the process and further the impression that such efforts are merely an exercise in cementing newly constructed political and social status. While the mix of methods will necessarily vary, prosecutions remain a legitimate and important, if limited, tool for holding accountable high-level actors in positions of responsibility and authority. In light of the inherent limitations of prosecutions, other forms of accountability should be encouraged, including bureaucratic vetting to ensure that those complicit with past abuse can no longer serve in government. Such processes should be tightly focused on past behavior and avoid the temptation of blanket purges based on mere association.

However, prosecutions and vetting alone cannot begin to cope with the extensive histories of abuse and criminality that the societies of the region will be forced to confront. And for this reason, other means will be necessary to establish thorough and rigorous accounts of past crimes and repression. Truth and historical commissions can play an important supplementary role, particularly in establishing the historical record. The distortion of history is an ever-present danger in the transitional setting, and fundamental reconciliation is not possible if the basic facts and history of political repression are unacknowledged by significant sectors of society.