The impact of violent conflict on a country’s society, economy and political governance is devastating and broad. The effects can be tangible and visible, including killed and injured civilians, destroyed or derelict bridges and wells and damaged or inadequate health care and education facilities. They can also be intangible, such as the collapse of state institutions, mistrust in government, the disruption of social cohesion, psychological trauma and pervasive fear. It is increasingly recognised that legacies of mass violence and human rights violations can, if left unaddressed, fuel future conflicts. Transitional justice seeks to address the legacies of large-scale past abuses, and includes mechanisms such as truth-telling initiatives, criminal prosecutions, reparations processes, cultural interventions, vetting and institutional reform.

The notion of transitional justice as a separate field of research and action emerged during the ‘third wave’ of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s and in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. At the time, it focused on addressing dictatorial or authoritarian regimes and the transition of societies to democracies. Since then, the field has evolved from being a human rights instrument of democratisation to become an essential aspect of post-conflict transitions and peace-building interventions (Andrieu, 2010).

The UN defines transitional justice as ‘the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation’ (UN Security Council, 2004).

By helping establish the truth and a permanent record of mass violence and human rights violations, transitional justice has the potential to assist communities to understand the root causes, to counter denial and to engage in conflict prevention. It also has the potential to restore personal dignity and provide spaces for dialogue and reflection (see González & Varney, 2013).

Transitional justice processes are inherently political in that they involve often contentious decisions and actions based on power, interest and prudence (Vinjamuri & Snyder, 2015). Support to such processes cannot be considered neutral and purely technical, but should be acknowledged as political, with the potential to produce both positive and negative effects (Barsalou, 2005; Thoms et al., 2008; Sancho, 2014). Decisions on, for example, whom to prosecute (high-, medium- or low-ranking officials; perpetrators of a particular ethnic group; solely domestic or also international actors) are political and are rarely perceived by societies, groups and individuals affected by the conflict as neutral decisions. With regard to truth commissions, the narratives that emerge tell a particular story about a nation’s traumatic past. This involves political determinations about what is included and what to leave out (Andrieu, 2010).

Transitional justice initiatives interact in complex, unpredictable ways with other aspects of peace negotiations, peace-building or post-authoritarian transitions (Thoms et al., 2008). While transitional justice should not be expected to solve complex conflicts, it has tools that could help alleviate conflict (Arthur, 2009). It is about the pursuit of justice, in various forms, in exceptional circumstances constrained by politics and resources (Duthie & Seils, 2016).

This guide aims to provide an overview of the field of transitional justice. It outlines key transitional justice mechanisms and looks at factors critical to the design of strategies, processes and mechanisms: local context and ownership; participation and inclusive processes; outreach; timing and sequencing; and coordination with other sectors. The guide also discusses select topics that are of growing interest to transitional justice researchers and practitioners and of much importance to the individuals, communities and societies that transitional justice actors seek to reach and address: the impact of transitional justice; socioeconomic rights and development; reconciliation; gender and youth; and diaspora, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).