Bringing transitional justice out of the West and the case of Iran

By Mirosław Michał Sadowski - Posted on 8 September 2023


Transitional justice has been used to analyse political transitions for over fifty years. Its omnipresence in the socio-legal and socio-political field has grown to the degree that transitional concepts and mechanisms are used to describe even those situations when no obvious transition took place (e.g., Canada or Australia) or happened a long time ago (e.g., the Brazilian truth commission convened many years after the fall of the dictatorship).

In my recent article with Seyed M. A. Zavarei, entitled Changing presents, shifting past(s): the diverse interests of transitional justice and cultural heritage in the case of the Iranian revolution and published in the Law and Humanities journal, we note that despite the proliferation of transitional justice as an analytical tool, it has in most cases been rather narrowly applied to describe only situations with the same end result: Western liberal democracy. In this paper, we investigate whether or not the transitional mechanisms work in a similar way during all political transitions, irrespective of their end result. Taking cultural heritage as the main focus of our analysis, we use the Iranian Revolution as a case study of a political transition.

Conceptual basis

Building up the fundaments of our investigation, we first turn to the concept of collective memory, i.e., a social memory established within a group and functioning on different levels, impacting the different perceptions of the general society regarding the past. These perceptions may be and are shaped and reshaped by politicians and others in the positions of power, ranging from the nation (or, in the case of organisations such as the EU, supranational entities) to family – if one was to close their eyes and start thinking about their first memory, the question to ask oneself would be how much of that memory is truly ours, and how much it has been influenced by stories of our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and perhaps photos of the event in question.

That is how collective memories are born on the basic level, and similar mechanisms are employed by the authorities, who often use cultural heritage (including not only buildings and monuments but also street names) in their attempts to change the official narrative and shift collective memories to further particular political goals: after all, what is protected and displayed will be remembered, while other cultural objects not deemed worthy of protection will be destroyed and fall into oblivion.

Political transitions are particular moments that impact the whole society and country in question in many ways, and the concept of transitional justice was established to describe and provide a better understanding of processes surrounding such transformations. We speak about transitional justice processes most often when it comes to transitions from a non-democratic system to a more democratic one, distinguishing a number of goals which a transition is supposed to achieve to reach ‘justice’, inter alia, a rupture with the difficult past, peaceful and democratic future, social cohesion, retribution and reconciliation.

Among these, of major importance are changes to the official narrative, which cement the political changes in the social perceptions. They are related to the phenomenon that I call a collective memory inversion (which I developed in my doctoral thesis, due to be published in 2024 under the title Intersections of Law and Memory: Influencing Perceptions of the Past with Routledge). A collective memory inversion occurs when, following a transition, the memories and stories of the former oppositionists become the official narrative, whereas those of the former authorities slide into oblivion and become counter-memories, to use the Foucauldian term. These changes impact cultural heritage with various buildings (e.g., Neue Reichskanzlei in Berlin after WWII), monuments (e.g., various communist statutes in CEE countries after 1989) and street names (e.g., in the newly independent countries after WWI) destroyed, removed or changed.

Iranian Revolution and Cultural Heritage

Iran is a particularly interesting case study in this regard. Whilst the 1979 Revolution led to a change from one non-democratic system to another, it still shows very similar transitional justice processes at work despite a different than typical end result. The fate of the art collection housed in the Contemporary Art Museum in Tehran (the largest outside of Europe and the US) became particularly emblematic of the impact that the Revolution had on the cultural heritage in Iran. We decided to focus, however, on the symbol of Lion and the Sun and changes to street names in Tehran as the main cases of our study.

The fate of the former is particularly fascinating. The Lion and the Sun symbol has been associated with Iran for hundreds of years, and since the 16th century came to be treated as a symbol of the whole country, becoming a vital element of the Iranian collective memory. Nevertheless, due to its associations with the monarchy, following the Revolution Khomeini demanded its removal from all public spaces, which was swiftly fulfilled. However, the symbol returned more recently in certain places, although not all reappearances were permanent.

In a similar vein, the changes affected street names, in particular those associated either with the monarchy or the broadly perceived West and its allies. A large number of them changed their names several times, reflecting the current influences in the Iranian government, as well as its external relationships. A particularly emblematic case was Vozara Street, which, following the Camp-David Agreement, was renamed in honour of Anwar Sadat’s (President of Egypt) assassin, which led to difficulties in normalising the relationship between Iran and Egypt; despite promises to do so, the name remains the same.

What future for transitional justice?

As the case study of Iran shows, the country’s cultural heritage faced a fate akin to heritage present in other societies in transition with changes taking place as an element of transitional justice, a visible reckoning with the difficult past when remnants of the fallen regime are dismantled and become a thing of the yesteryear, thus allowing the society to work through its difficult collective memories, at the same time strengthening the new authorities. As such, while we hope in our paper that all political transitions will lead to democratic regimes, we postulate that transitional justice be reinterpreted to not only be limited to classical Western perspectives, as their application elsewhere can also give unique insights regarding the inner workings of political transitions.