What is Transitional Justice?

Makeshift border divider made of barrels, in Cyprus

The field of transitional justice has undergone significant development since its early days.  Scholars are now beginning to understand transitional justice scholarship in terms of three waves.  These waves represent three distinct ways of considering issues relating to “justice” in time of transition.

The first wave was very narrowly focused, and considered what are now the foundations of international law.  Its focus was on two specific World War II-related judicial mechanisms: the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Tokyo Tribunal.  The importance of (re)establishing domestic judicial regulation as the basis of the rule of law was implicitly understood.

Scholars of the second wave began to consider other ways of “doing” justice.  As such, they were interested in the development of quasi-judicial restorative mechanisms like truth commissions, official apology and reparations, as well as innovative tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as hybrid courts like the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  The development of these mechanisms was seen as a means by which to introduce “justice” to situations where it had not existed for long periods of time.  And the rationale behind these enterprises was very much determined by a Western understanding of what was needed and what must be implemented, regardless of the cultural and societal institutions and understandings that might already have existed.

By contrast, the third wave began to consider transitional justice as being much more widely concerned.  Roht-Arriaza, for example, in talking about what can be characterized as the third wave, assumes that “the universe of transitional justice can be broadly or narrowly defined.  At its broadest, it involves anything that a society devises to deal with a legacy of conflict and/or widespread human rights violations, from changes in the criminal code... to tackling the distributional inequities that underlie conflict.”1 Scholars have begun to consider issues of development, democracy, the environment, the economy, human rights, politics, peace agreements and justice before, at the time of, and post-transition—all as a part of what has come to be called transitional justice.  And the literature has begun to reveal real and important links and synergies among and between these areas of study.

All of these understandings, both broad and narrow, have validity and utility.  For instance, scholarly work that seeks to better understand the complexities of the Nuremberg Tribunal is of critical importance.  As is work that considers the difficulties of democratization in post-conflict societies.  The Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction encompasses all of these areas of scholarly work.

1Naomi Roht-Arriaza, “Chapter 1,” Transitional Justice in the Twenty-First Century, eds. Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Javier Mariezcurrena (Cambridge University press, 2006), 2.

Further Reading