Transitional justice

Authored by: Juan E. Méndez , Catherine Cone

Routledge Handbook of International Human Rights Law

Print publication date:  December  2013
Online publication date:  August  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415620734
eBook ISBN: 9780203481417
Adobe ISBN: 9781135055943


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‘Transitional justice’ suggests the idea of justice in motion. By definition, transitional justice suggests a type of justice that plays a leading, albeit transient, role in shaping a transition from atrocities to the rule of law through a specifically tailored set of tools. The reality, however, is that a transition period can span as much as a few decades. 1 1

N. Roht-Arriaza, ‘Transitional Justice and Peace Agreements’ (2005) International Council on Human Rights Policy Working Paper,, accessed on 18 February 2012.

The reason for the often-lengthy transition lies in the backdrop of any transitional justice process — the particular society’s attempt to come to terms with large-scale past abuses in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve true reconciliation. 2 2

UN Secretary-General, ‘Rule of Law Tools for Post-Conflict States: The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies’ (2004) UN Doc. S/2004/616 (UN Secretary-General Transitional Justice Report) para. 8.

Based on our preferred definition of ‘transition’, the process is never complete until it reaches those fundamental objectives. However, even when set against this backdrop, the transitional justice stage is not always so clearly defined because it is not always limited to post-conflict situations. Increasingly, transitional justice is implemented in contexts where there is no clean break from conflict, ‘no defining moment of transition, no sense of a rupture with the past offering a new leaf or fresh start for the society’. 3 3

A. Lyons, ‘Introduction: For a Just Transition in Colombia’, in A. Lyons (ed.), Contested Transitions: Dilemmas of Transitional Justice in Colombia and Comparative Experience(International Center for Transitional Justice [ICTY] 2011) 15. The UN Secretary-General Transitional Justice Report emphasises how transitional justice is applicable both in conflict and post-conflict settings.

Consequently, transitional justice is better understood as a range of mechanisms that can be implemented within a framework that includes both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, such as prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking and institutional reform. 4 4

UN Secretary-General Transitional Justice Report, (n. 2) para. 8.

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