Impact of transitional justice

There is currently limited systematic evidence on the impacts of transitional justice. There is, however, growing recognition of the need to engage in such empirical research. Research is emerging, but still in the early stages. Nonetheless, many claims have been made about the positive impacts transitional justice can have on societies recovering from violent conflict. These include promoting reconciliation and psychological healing, respect for human rights and rule of law and helping establish the conditions for democratic and peaceful government (Thoms et al., 2010). Sceptics argue instead that many transitional justice measures can undermine negotiated settlements and exacerbate divisions.

An extensive survey of studies on transitional justice mechanisms (focusing on trials and truth commissions) finds insufficient empirical evidence of either positive or negative effects at the state level of analysis. Many early findings are questionable or contradictory and thus cannot provide useful guidance to policy-makers in making sound decisions and policy choices (Thoms et al., 2010). Even if transitional justice does achieve goals, there is limited knowledge of when, why or how it might do so (Olsen et al., 2010a).

An empirical analysis of data collected on five transitional justice mechanisms (trials, truth commissions, amnesties, reparations and lustration) for all countries in 1970–2007 finds specific combinations of mechanisms–trials and amnesties; trials, amnesties and truth commissions–can contribute positively to human rights and democracy (Olsen et al., 2010a). Trials can provide accountability and amnesties can provide stability, advancing democracy and respect for human rights. Truth commissions can also increase accountability by revealing systematic patterns of abuse; and provide guidance for reforms to improve human rights protections. On their own, however, truth commissions can have a negative impact on human rights (Olsen et al., 2010a).

Drawing on the experiences of truth commissions in Brazil, Chile, Nepal, South Africa and South Korea, a related study finds that, although truth commissions are incapable of promoting stability and accountability on their own, they contribute to human rights improvements when they complement and enhance amnesties and prosecutions (Olsen et al., 2010b). Additional research is needed to determine whether commissions are successful in achieving other important goals, such as establishing an official truth about the past and giving voice to victims (Olsen et al., 2010a).

Literature that focuses on truth commission impact finds different effects on democracy and human rights. While some find that truth commissions have a weak negative impact or no observable impact at all, others find a positive independent effect on human rights conduct (see Bakiner, 2014). Divergent results may owe to different research strategies (qualitative and quantitative) (Bakiner, 2014). A review of the literature finds that qualitative studies tend to see more positive effects of truth commissions than quantitative studies (Salehi & Williams, 2016).

Another review of existing literature on truth commissions finds evidence that truth commissions have had positive political impacts, albeit modestly and to different degrees, focusing on government policy (acknowledgement of human rights violations and willingness to implement truth commission report recommendations) and judicial change (use of findings for prosecutions). This is particularly the case when human rights and victims’ groups pressure governments for policy implementation (Bakiner, 2014). The review also finds that two factors that influence the degree of impact include the truth commission’s mandate and the role commissioners and staff play in interpreting this and interacting with stakeholders, and their decisions on what to include in the report (Bakiner, 2014). Although a lot of research has focused on the design and implementation of truth commissions, relatively few studies have assessed the individual psychological and emotional effects of national truth-telling on victims. A study assessing the available evidence on the impact of transitional justice finds little evidence to support either positive or negative claims about the effects of truth commission on victims (Mendeloff, 2009).

In contrast with truth commissions, a review of literature on trials finds that quantitative studies tend to see more positive impacts on human rights and peace (positive impact, no negative impact or no effect at all), whereas qualitative studies are more sceptical and find a better record for amnesties (Salehi & Williams, 2016). A statistical analysis on the role of international criminal tribunals and domestic human rights trials in peace-building in post-conflict societies finds that, while they do not appear to exercise any negative effects, they also do not seem to contribute to reducing the recurrence of civil war or improvements in human rights practices (Meernik et al., 2010). Again, more research is called for to provide more intensive analysis of the impact of domestic trials and international tribunals, in light of these findings (Meernik et al., 2010).

Memorials, museums and places of memory represent important sites to confront the past. The way memorialisation supports transitional justice and social reconstruction is, however, not well documented (Hamber et al., 2010). An assessment of the impact of memorialisation in Bangladesh, Chile and Italy—focusing on youth programming—finds memorial sites have had various positive impacts on the young people who visit them. These include changing opinions, raising awareness, improving relationships, encouraging civic engagement and increasing emotional understanding of the human consequences of atrocity. Whether such sites can contribute to reconciliation, violence prevention or respect for human rights depends largely on the extent to which they are linked to other wider mechanisms of reform (Hamber et al., 2010).

For further discussion on the impact of transitional justice on reconciliation, see the reconciliation section.