What is Transitional Justice?

Transitional justice refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses. These measures include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms.

Transitional justice is not a ‘special’ kind of justice, but an approach to achieving justice in times of transition from conflict and/or state repression. By trying to achieve accountability and redressing victims, transitional justice provides recognition of the rights of victims, promotes civic trust and strengthens the democratic rule of law.

Why is Transitional Justice Important?

In the aftermath of massive human rights abuses, victims have well established rights to see the perpetrators punished, to know the truth, and to receive reparations.

Because systemic human rights violations affect not just the direct victims, but society as a whole, in addition to satisfying these obligations, states have duties to guarantee that the violations will not recur, and therefore, a special duty to reform institutions that were either involved in or incapable of preventing the abuses.

A history of unaddressed massive abuses is likely to be socially divisive, to generate mistrust between groups and in the institutions of the State, and to hamper or slow down the achievement of security and development goals. It raises questions about the commitment to the rule of law and, ultimately, can lead to cyclical recurrence of violence in various forms.

As it is seen in most countries where massive human rights violations take place, the claims of justice refuse to ‘go away.’

The Elements of a Comprehensive Transitional Justice Policy

The different elements of a transitional justice policy are not parts of a random list, but rather, are related to one another practically and conceptually. The core elements are:

  • Criminal prosecutions, particularly those that address perpetrators considered to be the most responsible.
  • Reparations, through which governments recognize and take steps to address the harms suffered. Such initiatives often have material elements (such as cash payments or health services) as well as symbolic aspects (such as public apologies or day of remembrance).
  • Institutional reform of abusive state institutions such as armed forces, police and courts, to dismantle—by appropriate means—the structural machinery of abuses and prevent recurrence of serious human rights abuses and impunity.
  • Truth commissions or other means to investigate and report on systematic patterns of abuse, recommend changes and help understand the underlying causes of serious human rights violations.

This is not a closed list. Different countries have added other measures. Memorialization, for example, the various efforts to keep the memory of the victims alive through the creation of museums, memorials, and other symbolic initiatives such as the renaming of public spaces, etc., has become an important part of transitional justice in most parts of the world.

Despite the fact that transitional justice measures rest on solid legal and moral obligations, there is wide latitude as to how these obligations can be satisfied, and therefore there is no formula to fit all contexts.

ICTJ’s Role

The International Center for Transitional Justice works in over 30 countries to help connect local needs with global knowledge.

We bring our technical expertise and experience, to every place we work and develop new knowledge with local partners.