Wikipedia’s Take on Transitional Justice

This post assesses Wikipedia’s article on transitional justice, as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age at the Kennedy School. You can find my Wikipedia user page here.

I chose to evaluate Wikipedia’s page on transitional justice — the term used to describe a range of processes by which societies transition out of periods of conflict, or away from repressive regimes, with the goal of addressing questions of justice, truth, and/or reconciliation. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on transitional justice, conducted research on the topic in Guatemala, and currently co-lead the transitional justice committee of the Human Rights Professional Interest Council at the Kennedy School. I was curious about how Wikipedia would cover the range of mechanisms in transitional justice, as well as how it would handle some of the historical divides in the field (e.g. truth commissions vs. courts).

Comprehensiveness: The article adequately covers the basics of transitional justice: its origins, its objectives, its primary manifestations (e.g. truth commissions, reparations), its challenges, and its future. However, the article could be improved in at least three critical areas. First, the article could better acknowledge some of the regional and country-specific differences that impacted scholars’ and practitioners’ conceptions of transitional justice. For instance, the truth commissions used in many Latin American nations in the 1980s were designed to address a very different set of issues than post-genocide transitional justice efforts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Second, the article could provide further details on the most commonly used transitional justice mechanisms. For instance, truth commissions are summed up in four sentences and inappropriately nestled under the “Prosecutions” heading. Additionally, a sub-heading for forensic anthropology could be important to add, as it forms a critical component of many truth-seeking processes’ efforts to locate and identify the “disappeared.” Lastly, the article could better acknowledge the increasing use of mixed methods in transitional justice, for instance, the hybrid courts and truth commissions used in East Timor in the 2000s.

Sourcing: The article relies heavily on material from the International Center for Transitional Justice, an international non-profit that works on transitional justice initiatives around the world. The entry could benefit from a wider range of institutional reporting (for instance, additional material from the Crisis Group or World Bank), as well as further academic literature on transitional justice from a range of fields (e.g. law, public health, political science, philosophy, etc.). For instance, the work of Naomi Roht-Arriaza or Joanna Quinn could provide further insight into the evolution of transitional justice and its current challenges.

Neutrality: The article is fairly neutral, although its coverage of prosecutorial justice seems to overshadow other forms of transitional justice (reflecting a historical bias in the discipline). Additionally, labeling the section that covers different methods of transitional justice (including non-prosecutorial methods) as “Prosecutions” adds to the perception of prosecutorial justice as the primary means of transitional justice. Including a “Major Cases” section at the end of the article also signals a legal emphasis. This potential bias could be ameliorated with additional coverage of non-prosecutorial forms of transitional justice, as well as hybrid forms, as discussed above. Additionally, some of the language in the article seems to express negative judgment on the field’s origins and focus (for instance, “It is no surprise then that initial literature on transitional justice was dominated by lawyers…” or “These origins in the human rights movement have necessarily rendered transitional justice ‘self-consciously victim-centric.’”).

Readability: The article is readable, but sections of it are poorly written. There are a number of grammatical errors, including vague pronouns and run-on sentences. The article also assumes readers’ familiarity with a number of legal and transitional justice-specific terms. Further unpacking the field’s vocabulary would enhance the article’s readability (for instance, “universal jurisdiction” could be explained in the context of the International Criminal Court).

Formatting: The article does not fully comply with the Wikipedia Manual of Style. First, the entry does not properly attribute the opening two quoted sentences of the article to an author (opting for a footnote instead of a citation in the text). Additionally, the article uses external links in the body of the text, which should be placed in the external links section instead.

Illustrations: The article does not contain any illustrations, but could be supplemented with pictures of memorials that came out of transitional justice processes (e.g. the initiatives in Uganda that the article mentions).

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