Lawyers as Political Actors in Conflict & Transition

Law is in many ways central to transitions from conflict and dictatorship. Abuses of the rule of law are often both a catalyst and consequence of mass violence. Furthermore, during transitions, the rule of law can offer much needed stability, but may be subject to radical transformations in written law, legal institutions and the administration of justice.

Lawyers are, of course, central to these endeavours. For example, if they work within the state, they may draft new laws; advise government on its obligations under international law; and participate in delicate political negotiations. Lawyers also generally play leading roles in transitional justice mechanisms designed to bring truth, justice and reparations for victims. Furthermore, lawyers who work with civil society groups can play an important role in ensuring that new transitional governments fulfil the aspirations of society for meaningful change. Conversely, lawyers who are aligned to the former regime may seek to use the law to resist societal changes or to defend state agents and institutions.

Although lawyers play a significant role in shaping political transitions that role has rarely been subject to academic scrutiny. To address this gap, since 2012, I have been working with Professor Kieran McEvoy, Dr Anna Bryson and Marny Requa on a comparative project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


As part of this project, the team conducted over 120 semi-structured interviews across the six field sites (South Africa, Israel, Palestine, Cambodia, Chile and Tunisia) with national and international lawyers, academics, judicial figures and NGO activists. The questions explored in these interviews covered a number of themes including:

  • How do lawyers respond to periods of extreme political violence and state repression?
  • How important are lawyers in wide-scale efforts at popular mobilisation in response to such activities?
  • What is the particular role of legal collectives (e.g. bar councils, law societies) in broader public debates and vis-a-vis cause lawyers?
  • What is the particular contribution of lawyers in terms of professional and popular understandings of the ‘rule of law’ at different stages of a conflict and transition?
  • What is the nature of the intersection between litigation strategies and events outside the courts in conflicted and transitional societies?
  • To what extent does the attitude of local lawyers towards international law and international legal actors influence legal understandings of the conflict and transition, the local political context and international understandings of the conflict and transition?
  • How significant is the issue of gender in determining the role of lawyers?
  • How relevant are lawyers in periods where political or military leaders appear more willing to negotiate and (if such negotiations succeed) in the design and implementation of political agreements and transitional justice policies?

Project outputs

The project has already produced several policy-orientated reports (translated into local languages) that are intended for local actors in each of the jurisdictions including practising judges and lawyers, legal collectives, government departments, civil society activists and other NGOs, as well as for international audiences. These reports are free to download on the project website.

The preliminary findings of the project research will be presented at a conference in Belfast on 13 October 2016.

This conference will be a followed by a series of academic publications, including a monograph.

If you are interested in learning more about the conference or project, please do get in touch.