Breaking down the term

The term transitional justice, while applicable in many different contexts, usually refers to the process of addressing group violence or the violation of human rights by bringing groups of people together to work towards healing and justice outside of traditional court settings. The most important goal of transitional justice as defined by the United Nations is “to gain some level of justice for victims [and] to reinforce the possibilities for peace, democracy, and reconciliation.” The methods involved are employed to create an understanding of a shared traumatic event and why it happened by those involved through truth-seeking, prosecution, and justice against both the violators and the violated, and reparations for all those who have been affected.

This leads to one of the most important parts of transitional justice in that it lets victims have a platform to be heard, as opposed to traditional justice systems that emphasize punishing perpetrators. Thus, transitional justice places the emphasis on stability and reconciliation rather than revenge as a means of closure so as to foster communities that are dedicated to moving on from past violent disputes.   

The term transitional justice came into use as widespread decolonization began to take place in the 1950s-60s. However, some of the first instances of transitional justice being applied at a large, institutional level came directly following World War Two. For example, the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials saw leaders from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan charged with crimes against humanity in an effort to encourage accountability while letting the countries move forward from that part of their histories. 

How transitional justice manifests

Because of its broad scope, transitional justice can aim for different results and require different procedures depending on the context. For instance, at the local level, an example of immediate success from a transitional approach to justice could be an arrival at a shared understanding between neighbors on the opposing sides impacting their community, addressing community issues easily fixed, etc. On the other hand, at the national level, transitional justice does not do much to alleviate stressors that create conflict in the first place unless national governments take real action to address the stressors. In addition, countries vary in how it is applied and what results are derived from the process. 

One of the most prominent and well-known forums for transitional justice is the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). Truth and reconciliation commissions are usually created by national governments with the aim of allowing all members of a community to tell their stories and providing a place to address transgressions so that violence does not continue to persist. Many applications of transitional justice also set up a time frame to complete their work to ensure that actual changes are delivered in the near future. Not all TRCs are set up to deal with recent atrocities or violations, however; some have worked to address generational inequalities or historical injustices through communication and learning. 

Often TRCs are recommended courses of action by the government but are then organized and facilitated by non-government organizations so as to remove bias and influence in the research and recommendations. 

Examples of how transitional justice has been used

Many countries have pursued non-judicial forms of justice in conjunction with traditional court systems. For example, in Canada, the federal government has compensated Indigenous survivors of residential schools that the government and Catholic church forced Indigenous children to attend, often with grievous consequences. Compensation comes in monetary payments to those affected; for example, attendees of the school were paid $10,000 CAD in addition to $3,000 CAD for each year attended. This was solely based on the assumption of guilt for the boarding schools and would not include compensation for physical violence and abuse. This was in addition to a state-sponsored truth and reconciliation commission that began in 2008. The commission sought to give survivors of residential schools a platform to share their experiences in order for the government to better understand the extent of the abuse and the generational trauma that followed. 

Colombia is another nation that has invested in the transitional justice approach, specifically in its dealing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) over the last number of decades. FARC emerged in 1964 as a Marxist-Leninist organization with the aim of launching an armed resistance to combat the inequality faced by Colombian agricultural workers. However, FARC later resorted to criminal acts to sustain itself, such as trafficking drugs and people, taking hostages, and performing mass attacks.  

In 2016, the Colombian government reached a peace agreement with FARC, and a Special Jurisdiction for Peace commission was set up to encourage permanent reconciliation and included aspects of political, economic, and judicial justice. For example, Colombia recognizes the FARC as a political organization, addresses FARC supporters’ economic needs, and puts the combatants of violent crimes on trial. This has provided an opportunity for real justice for the country.

However, between dissidents from FARC and a lack of action on promises from the government to change equality for non-landowners, there are still fundamental issues that need to be addressed. Nevertheless, some progress has been made in beginning to create acceptance of admission of crimes and reacceptance of fighters back into their communities. As such, this is an example of how transitional justice is an ongoing process and not an immediate solution. 

Shortcomings and future uses

If a government does not put the effort to create change through transitional justice and uses the process just for improving public opinion, then it is unlikely to result in positive development. For example, when governments signal their willingness to promote justice through truth and reconciliation commissions but then don’t take action to remedy the issues actually brought up, it does not create meaningful and lasting change. This is especially prevalent in settler countries like Canada in which transitional justice is limited to acknowledgment and truth and reconciliation commissions, but further action is unlikely. 

One instance transitional justice may be used in the future is for people whose human rights may be violated by the lack of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. This could also mean possibilities for compensation and for holding leaders accountable for creating meaningful action. Despite these flaws with transitional justice and its applications, it is inspiring to see a willingness to acknowledge and address issues revolving around human rights violations and mass violence in a way that includes community input. 

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...