Transitional Justice in Ancient Athens: A Case Study
45 Pages Posted: 15 Jan 2011 Last revised: 23 Jan 2011
This article presents our first well-documented example of a self-conscious transitional justice policy - the classical Athenians’ response to atrocities committed during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants - as a case study that can offer insight into the design of modern transitional justice institutions. The Athenians carefully balanced retribution and forgiveness: an amnesty protected collaborators from direct prosecution, but in practice private citizens could indirectly sanction even low-level oligarchic sympathizers by raising their collaboration as character evidence in unrelated lawsuits. They also balanced remembering and forgetting: discussion of the civil war in the courts memorialized the atrocities committed during the tyranny, but also whitewashed the widespread collaboration by ordinary citizens, depicting the majority of the populace as members of the democratic resistance. This case study of Athens’ successful reconciliation offers new insight into contemporary transitional justice debates. The Athenian experience suggests that the current focus on uncovering the truth may be misguided. The Athenian case also counsels that providing an avenue for individual victims to pursue local grievances can help minimize the impunity gap created by the inevitably selective nature of transitional justice.
Keywords: Athens, Transitional Justice, Athenian Law, Greek History, Civil War, International Law
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