What is Transitional Justice?

Transitional justice is a range of mechanisms designed to address the legacy of massive human rights abuses in societies emerging from long periods of conflict or totalitarian rule.

At its core is the recognition that those who have been most affected by abuses should be the ones who guide the processes and design the remedies. This bottom-up approach, stands in contrast to the top-down approach of powerful political actors negotiating solutions, which may come at the expense of speaking truth to power.

Transitional justice seeks restorative justice, seeing the need to empower victims as they move forward into the future.

Restorative justice can also include holding those responsible for abuses accountable. Criminal prosecutions can be designed to target perpetrators who carried out abuses, and also leaders at the highest level who bear responsibility for the scale and structure under which the abuses took place. In transitional societies around the world combinations of prosecutions, truth telling and amnesty have been combined to meet victims demands for justice.

While the mechanisms are different in each context, they typically include a combination of criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparation programs, institutional reforms and memorialization efforts.

What does a transition look like?

On the Korean peninsula, transition has the added complexity of the unification question. There are many models for a change in the current status quo, with many calling for unification in the near or long-term. Some predict an imminent collapse of North Korea’s system, while others see potential in gradual reform. Whether change occurs suddenly or slowly, in a unified Korea, or in a two state solution, the need for transitional justice mechanisms is not diminished.