Transitional justice (TJ) is essentially a field that grew around a single question: how do you address the legacy of conflict-related violence and widespread human rights abuses? The first time that we as an international community really had to think about how to address the mess of war and the impact of genocide and what consequently became known as crimes against humanity was of course at the Nuremburg Trials in relation to the holocaust in the wake of World War Two. But the field itself really grew out of the efforts in Latin American countries coming out of authoritarian regimes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There, the human rights communities, lawyers, activists, families of victims and survivors in countries like Peru, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and Colombia began developing strategies to help victims of human rights abuses by the state. At the same time, they began thinking about the process of establishing, or re-establishing rights-respecting democratic structures. By the mid-1990s the concept of TJ had been popularized by high profile, high visibility efforts to confront the past, the most recognisable of course being the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a commission established in 1995 as part of South Africa’s transition to democracy, to deal with a limited number and range of Apartheid-era abuses. The idea that legacies of institutionalized violence needed to be addressed was consolidated over the 2000s, and the field continues to evolve, particularly in the wake of the Arab Revolutions.
What TJ does, essentially, is to suggest a number of concrete measures for dealing with legacies of conflict. While there is significant diversity within the field, most practitioners and theorists agree that some version of institutional reform, criminal justice, reparations, gender justice, and the documentation and acknowledgment of human rights violations as part of broader truth-seeking efforts are key to the repair of societies after deep trauma and widespread violations of people’s rights.
So in terms of the big picture, the motivation for transitional justice in post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies is political and societal transformation. There are institution-centred approaches, like judicial and police reform, criminal justice, reparations, and the documentation of human rights violations, which fit into truth-seeking efforts. And there are also less institution-focused approaches. Ideally, the two work hand in hand, but this is not always the case.
Less institution-focused approaches are looking at TJ as a tool for broader conflict transformation, and there is a great deal of debate over where the boundaries of TJ lie, and what sits outside. Some academics and practitioners are focusing on the value of TJ for countering denial and for promoting accountability: that is, if you think of Bosnia, the value of the Special Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to show that the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica was, in fact, a genocide. Or like the arguments of the Head of the SA TRC Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the value of TJ also lies in approaches that expand dialogue and create a space for marginalised voices. Or, for others, the goal of TJ processes is to transform victims so that they can become active, empowered citizens. And in many cases, the institutional and the individual are linked.