Transitional justice seeks to address the destructive and painful legacies of mass violence and human rights violations. It involves mechanisms and processes such as truth-telling, criminal prosecutions, reparations, memorialisation, traditional justice, cultural interventions, vetting and institutional reform. The application of transitional justice is often more effective with a combination of mechanisms, to enable greater innovation and a comprehensive approach that evolves over time.

This topic guide provides an overview of the field of transitional justice. It discusses key mechanisms, relevant factors to consider when working in transitional justice, and topics of growing interest to scholars, practitioners, local actors and communities.

Factors important to the design of transitional justice strategies, processes and mechanisms include the following:

  • Local context and ownership: Mechanical and top-down design and implementation of transitional justice is unlikely to resonate with local needs, meanings and practices, and can undermine a sense of legitimacy and ownership. It is crucial to learn about local perceptions, preferences and practices and to incorporate them.
  • Participation and inclusive processes: Inclusive participation has the potential to empower local people and to challenge a range of exclusions and power relations at local, national and international levels. Potential difficulties to address include the ability to identify, hear and incorporate multiple voices; and the ability of communities to mobilise and articulate their needs and priorities.
  • Outreach: Careful public outreach, including a variety of targeted messages to all relevant groups, could contribute to public support for transitional justice efforts. In the absence of such outreach, there can be a gap between the goals of transitional justice and the needs and perceptions of the societies it seeks to serve.
  • Timing and sequencing:  It can be beneficial to view transitional justice as a continuous process of transformation. In some cases, implementing certain initiatives before society is ready can produce more divisions. Ongoing political economy and conflict analysis can help to identify risks, changes in incentive structures and new opportunities to promote transitional justice.
  • Coordination with other sectors: It is important to eliminate the frequent disconnect between transitional justice objectives and strategies and other humanitarian and development interventions. Improving relationships between sectors can enable better assessment of how their different goals and actions affect each other.

Key transitional justice topics include:

  • The impact of transitional justice: There is currently limited systematic evidence on the impacts of transitional justice. Nonetheless, many claims have been made about the positive effects transitional justice can have on societies recovering from violent conflict. Sceptics argue instead that it can undermine negotiated settlements and worsen divisions. Research on impacts is emerging, but is still in the early stages – and currently points to mixed findings.
  • Socioeconomic rights and development: There have been growing calls to expand the focus of transitional justice beyond political and civil rights to cover socioeconomic inequalities and systemic marginalisation. The main approach emphasised is the promotion and enforcement of economic, social and cultural rights. Others argue for a more far-reaching approach (‘transformative justice’) that seeks to question liberal political and economic agendas. Sceptics argue, however, that transitional justice does not have the tools to delve into development issues.
  • Reconciliation: This is often identified as a specific goal of transitional justice, generally, and in many transitional justice processes and mechanisms. Reconciliation can apply at many levels: individual (psychological), interpersonal (personal friendships), community (inter-group relationships), societal (common civic goals and action) and political (state-citizen relations). There is much uncertainty about whether transitional justice contributes to reconciliation, at its varying levels. Greater empirical research on impact is needed, along with more efforts to explicitly address social repair in initiatives.
  • Art and transitional justice: Cultural and artistic projects (e.g. drama, photography, dance) can make victims visible and, in some cases, provide them with spaces to share their experiences for the first time. Such interventions can also amplify the work of other transitional justice mechanisms by publicising, for example, the findings of a truth commission in an accessible and powerful way.
  • Gender and youth:  The nature and consequences of mass violence differ significantly for men, women and children. It is important for transitional justice processes and mechanisms to incorporate these varying perspectives and needs. The narratives that emerge should highlight gender disparities and explore the links between masculinity and violence. Transitional justice initiatives also need to be accessible to women and children, including for example by providing childcare and producing child-friendly literature.
  • Diaspora, refugees and IDPs: Transitional justice mechanisms have focused primarily on institutions and populations within national borders. There has, however, been growing recognition of the importance of involving diasporas, refugees and internally displaced persons. Their involvement is important in itself, as many will have been victims of human rights violations. It can also contribute to greater diversity of perspectives, more comprehensive truth telling, higher levels of international awareness and the ability to address social divisions within diasporas. There are various challenges, however, including operational and technical difficulties of extending transitional justice mechanisms across various countries.