Transitional Justice in Practice

Ronald Zuniga holds a photo of his deceased brother while he makes a statement in front of the members of the Peru TRC during the first public audience in Huancavelica

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, May 12, 2014 to Friday, May 23, 2014
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary of Conversation

Thank you for joining Jasmina Brankovic and Sufiya Bray of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), Galuh Wandita and Patrick Burgess of the Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) and the New Tactics online community for this discussion on Transitional Justice in Practice that took place on May 12 to May 23, 2014.

In under three decades, transitional justice has achieved global legitimacy as a means of addressing systematic human rights abuses of the past in order to facilitate transitions from authoritarianism and conflict to democracy and sustainable peace. Transitional justice mechanisms ranging from criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, and institutional reform to material and symbolic reparations for victims and community-based or “traditional” justice processes have become a staple of post-conflict nation building, with their promise of helping societies eschew past divisions through justice, truth, and reconciliation.

Although established, the field is still developing and heavily contested, with practitioners and scholars in the global North and South debating its impact to date, whose interests it serves, and the extent to which it should maintain its focus on individual criminal accountability or widen its parameters to address broader issues, such as historically based structural harms, gender inequity, and questions of memory, among others.

The online discussion was an opportunity to discuss how transitional justice processes are understood and practiced in widely varying country contexts. We explored some of the field’s central debates and future directions: What is the role of human rights in transitional justice? How have transitional justice actors addressed the tensions between peace and justice? What is the relationship between international and local approaches to justice? How can transitional justice better serve the interests of victims/survivors? How do we measure the impact of transitional justice processes? What innovations have practitioners developed to address deep-seated social, political, economic, and cultural divisions in post-conflict societies? How are practitioners using new technologies to promote transitional justice?

Tactical Examples Shared:

  • Pacific Route organized the Truth Commission of Women in Colombia which was conceived as a “process where women who suffered violence against her lives and bodies, could be put at the center, together with their contributions, demands and revindications".
  • The provision of effective remedies as a goal for TJ processes seen through the Human Rights Committee in the case of Sharma V Nepal.
  • Transitional Justice being used in Uganda with the presence of the International Criminal Court, for example the start of prosecutions in a domestic war crimes court, the roll-out of community reparations in the north, etc.
  • Solidarity Uganda, with the assistance of other NGOs have formed a collective in Northern Uganda to prevent land conflict and the human rights abuses that happen as a result.  
  • The District Six Museum in South Africa spearheaded a land claim in which people ultimately recovered both the property and dignity they had lost under the apartheid.
  • AJAR has adapted traditional tools for participatory action research in an effort to rethink how to work on gender justice.  They are developing methods where women survivors become an active agent of change, not as an object of research, statement-taking, or documentation.
  • East Timor's Truth Commission (CAVR) used timeline and community mapping as two participatory tools to get more information on violations that were experienced together.

What is Transitional Justice & how is it connected to human rights?

The first charge of this month’s conversation was to explore what transitional justice is and how it is connected to human rights. Participants cited multiple definitions for transitional justice, ranging from the formal  United Nations definition, to their personal definitions and its connection to human rights.  Many participants agreed that human rights is the “starting point” for transitional justice and that similar to human rights, transitional justice is a broad topic that is focused on unraveling issues, confronting the past, or divided societies.

Conversation participants also agreed that transitional justice is complex and can be defined in numerous layers and points of views.  As an example, a video was shared by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, entitled “What is Transitional Justice,” which explains transitional justice and its potential in the context of the crisis in Syria by concentrating on five central issues:

  1. seeking truth,
  2. achieving justice,
  3. paying indemnities,
  4. national reconciliation, and
  5. taking precautions to avoid human rights violations in the future.  

Participants agreed that the role of women in the transitional justice process was limited. An important piece of the transitional justice is to include the experiences of women in conflict, as well as their needs post-conflict.

Transitional justice was described as a medium to address past human rights violations in order to begin the process of reconciliation. The concept of fluidity plays a role when analyzing how to contextualize transitional justice, highlighting that each situation will differ based on historical and cultural contexts, which will determine the appropriate methods and mechanisms used.

A suggestion was made to think of transitional justice as a process rather than a goal, emphasizing the importance of the process and not concentrating only on the endpoint.   

Pursuing transitional justice without transition?

Transitional justice efforts address the past abuses of authoritarian states and are increasingly occurring in countries where a transition has not occurred or where conflict is still close to the surface.  This discussion breaks down mechanisms associated with transitional justice, as well as the question of pursuing transitional justice without transition.

The transitional justice process in Uganda has raised questions among practitioners, such as: who defines transition? who sets the agenda?

Foregrounding the interests, needs, and rights of victims in transitional justice

This discussion topic was centered around examples of how practitioners pursue accountability and redress in transitional contexts, particularly where there are multiple groups of victims with different needs, or where the line between victim and perpetrator may be blurred.

Understanding and defining those who are categorized as victims is important, especially realizing the demographic is not a “homogeneous group.”  The way practitioners define victims is often different and sometimes those who they define as victims don’t see themselves as such.  Since it is nearly impossible to use the same mechanisms of transitional justice with every victim, customizing and balancing the needs of the victims and perpetrators is challenging, yet ideal.  One of the participants mentioned South Africa as a model and the TRC as the process, addressing how it can be hard to balance the needs of the victims when far more of the interest lies in the needs of the actors.

Another topic that surrounds the subject was the challenge of creating a “consensus” among victims with different backgrounds, as well as the division between victims and survivors.  One of the participants shared that the government would often times use these types of divisions to justify setbacks.  Analyzing the role of the victim also relates.  Questions on this topic included: what role do victims play in the decision for a transitional justice process? how much are their needs, expectations, and ideas considered in designing concrete mechanisms? how much influence do victims have on timing and sequencing of such a process?

Addressing historical and ongoing socio economic injustices through transitional justice practices

A debate has emerged that transitional justice can and should include socio economic exclusions as a root of conflict and what practitioners’ roles are in addressing deep-seated social, political, economic, and cultural divisions in transitional societies.

Traditionally, transitional justice has paid more attention to civil and political rights, as opposed to economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCRs).  An example of this is seen through the conflict in Northern Uganda, which resulted in violations of various ESCRs, as well as violations and conflict in East Timor by the Indonesian military.  In summary, because transitional justice heavily focuses on large-scale war crimes, human rights violations, etc., this tends to take precedence over bringing to light economic, social, and cultural factors associated with conflict.

Participants also addressed the role of corporate and economic actors stressing their responsibility for human rights violations (i.e. civic trust and distributive justice) associated with the corporation(s), understanding there is a risk justice will not always be served due to the magnitude and power these corporations hold.

Transitional justice and broader challenges of gender justice   

As one participant points out, transitional justice involves strengthening accountability: understanding a human rights violation and its impact on both men and women is vital for accountability purposes. Addressing gender-sensitive concerns means to consider gender dynamics and gender inequality. Because women victims face more barriers than men both to access redress and survive a violation, it is important to ensure transitional justice mechanisms address these gender- sensitive concerns:

In order to further ensure transitional justice interventions are benefiting women victims themselves, additional long-term methods, such as empowering women survivors, facilitating healing process, building solidarity, and networking are needed. These long-term methods integrate and adapt trauma healing, participatory action research, and feminist methods in order to both document and understand violence. Examples of how participatory action research can be adapted to benefit women were also given.

In addition, one participant observed there has been a decrease in advocacy platforms where women connect to articulate an advocacy agenda and strategize how to advance their objectives. She asks: how can we rebuild momentum? Another participant replies, explaining this reduction might be due to the institutionalization of women’s efforts, which make efforts less radical, participatory, and activist. She believes the discussion of “women’s issues” should be broadened.

Local versus global approaches to transitional justice

There are various practices to transitional justice – international, regional, national, and local/community-based. This discussion explores how practitioners deal with tensions between these different approaches.  

Tensions amongst international and local approaches are common and some have argued that pressures from international actors are western-led and at times a form of neocolonialism.  As the debate continues, it is argued that there is no “one size fits all” approach to transitional justice.  There are many approaches that cater to the needs of those each approach is serving.  For example, the reconciliation approach focuses on the needs of the victims whereas the justice approach focuses on bring the victims to justice.  A participant agrees that although these approaches are complementary to each other,  there is often a large disconnect between this belief and individual organizations.

After long discussions and research, solutions to this are to create a hybrid approach, merging two and using them in different sectors.  As an example, The Burundian society uses the restorative justice approach at a grass root level and the punitive approach for the top decision-making level.

The responsibility of these international actors is also important.  Participants agreed that international actors, donors, and NGOs should remain sensitive and take time to observe before any implementation or enforcement stage.  This topic sparked a discussion around corporate and economic accountability, funding, and global responsibility.       

Resources Shared:

Articles, websites and databases:

Reports & Significant Chapters:



Image: Ronald Zuniga holds a photo of his deceased brother while he makes a statement in front of the members of the Peru TRC during the first public audience in Huancavelica, from our Tactic Case Study titled Public Audiences: Creating Space to Recognize Victims of Internal Conflict in Peru

Conversation Leaders

PBurgess's picture
Patrick Burgess
Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR)
galuh.wandita's picture
Galuh Wandita
Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR)
jmccalpin's picture
Dr. Jermaine McCalpin
The University of the West Indies, Mona
Lucy Hovil's picture
Lucy Hovil
International Refugee Rights Initiative
Stephen Oola's picture
Stephen Oola
Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University, Kampala
Salima N's picture
Salima N
Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER)
Sufiya Bray's picture
Sufiya Bray
Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
@_AJCole's picture
Alison Cole
Open Society Justice Initiative
Jasmina Brankovic's picture
Jasmina Brankovic
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
Naomi Roht-Arriaza's picture
Naomi Roht-Arriaza
UC Hastings
Daniela Ramírez's picture
Daniela Ramírez Camacho
Fundar, Centro de Análisis e Investigación
Ghislain NYAKU's picture
Ghislain NYAKU
nahla_valji's picture
Nahla Valji
UN Women
HSipalla's picture
Humphrey Sipalla