- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0052
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0052
Transitional justice (sometimes called retroactive justice) is broadly defined as policies undertaken by a new regime to rectify or ameliorate injustices perpetrated by the previous regime. It differs from regular “justice” in that it spans different legal or constitutional structures resulting from regime transitions. Its contemporary meaning is usually slightly narrower, referring almost exclusively to policies enacted in an unconsolidated or newly democratic regime to address injustices of the previous authoritarian regime. The primary actors implementing transitional justice are states and international organizations, although increasingly the roles of actors such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), villages, and private citizens are considered as well. The relevant injustices are often understood first as human rights violations, such as war crimes, genocide, torture, or disappearances, but transitional justice policies can also be aimed at a much wider range of targets, such as more conventional legal crimes, political decisions, bureaucratic crimes, corruption, collaboration, and socioeconomic injustices. The range of policies falling under the rubric of transitional justice includes criminal trials, purges, screening, truth commissions, amnesties, reparations, compensation, rehabilitation, apologies, property restitution, memorialization, and policies aimed at reconciliation. Although there is a long history of literature on these issues, there was no field called “transitional justice” until the 1980s. Since then it has developed across all the main subfields of political science, primarily international relations, comparative politics, and political theory, and less so in American politics. Much analysis comes in the form of collections of case studies and is descriptive or normative, concerning what policies are necessary, appropriate, or beneficial in what contexts. Rapidly expanding since the early 2000s has been empirical and comparative work on the causes of and constraints on transitional justice policies; the impacts of policy choices at political, social, and psychological levels; and the effects of the process of implementation on outcomes.
General literature on transitional justice can be divided into a few classic and more numerous contemporary works on transitional justice issues—usually debates over whether and how new regimes should deal with previous ones. Thucydides 1972 recreates a complex and nuanced debate over how to punish collaboration. Machiavelli 1994 is more social scientific in its attempts to derive general rules about the conditions for and effectiveness of public violence. Contemporary literature begins with World War II, and especially the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. From here on the discourse changes, since all discussions have to take into account new discourse on human rights, war crimes, and the possibility of justice through international interventions. The edited volumes Herz 1982 and, especially, Kritz 1995 are excellent introductions to the main cases and debates as of their dates of publication, and the enormous compilations of material in Kritz 1995 are excellent jumping off points for further research. De Brito, et al. 2001 offers more theoretically grounded and comparative analysis focused on Iberia and Latin America. Elster 2004 provides a concise historical overview and a thoughtful framework of variables for analysis of further cases. Teitel 2003 traces the evolution of the concept of transitional justice, dividing it into three time periods, culminating in the 21st-century normalization of transitional justice discourse, if not practice. Williams, et al. 2012 offers a range of theoretical and empirical studies that helpfully incorporate 21st-century patterns and includes compensation and reparations, along with more retributive policies.
De Brito, Alexandra Barahona, Carmen Gonzaléz Enríquez, and Paloma Aquilar, eds. The Politics of Memory: Transitional Justice in Democratizing Societies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
A collection of thematic and regional chapters covering international actors in transitional justice and policies in Portugal, Spain, the Southern Cone, Central America, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Germany, and the former Soviet Union. Particularly useful for Latin America and the Iberian states.
Elster, Jon. Closing the Books: Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
A comprehensive introduction to transitional justice, including a historical survey and categorization of the main variables determining its form and intensity, as well as an analysis of the emotions involved in justice after political change.
Herz, John H., ed. From Dictatorship to Democracy: Coping with the Legacies of Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.
A collection of essays covering most of the main instances of transitional justice from World War II to the early 1980s. Chapters emphasize the political difficulty of implementing policies, unintended consequences, and the influence of outgoing elites. Particularly strong work on Germany, Japan, and Greece.
Kritz, Neil, ed. Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes. 3 vols. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995.
A very extensive compilation of history, analysis, and documentation on transitional justice. Volume 1, General Considerations, provides a broad overview of relevant questions and debates. Volume 2, Country Studies, covers twenty-one cases between World War II and post-Communist Eastern Europe. Volume 3, Laws, Rulings, and Reports, contains statutes and primary documents.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Edited and translated by David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994.
Machiavelli’s discussions of the symbolic and demonstrative uses of violence are directly applicable to contemporary debates over morality and pragmatism in transitional justice. Machiavelli falls on the pragmatic end of the spectrum, but his analyses of the use and abuse of cruelty and the possibilities of foundational violence include subtle considerations of normative and ethical issues.
Teitel, Ruti. “Transitional Justice Genealogy.” Harvard Human Rights Journal 16 (2003): 69–94.
Traces the origins and evolution of the term since World War II, with a focus on legal approaches. Distinguishes three phases, leading to the expansion of transitional justice discourse in the 1980s and its normalization in the 21st century, where many kinds of claims are made in terms of justice and through judicial institutions and procedures.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Introduction and notes by M. I. Finley. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1972.
A foundational text rather than an overview, this is one of the earliest discussions of ethical and practical debates over transitional justice. “The Mytilinean Debate” concerns how to treat collaborators with an enemy power; narrow versus broadly collective punishment; and how to balance vengeance, justice, and practical political considerations.
Williams, Melissa, Rosemary Nagy, and Jon Elster, eds. Transitional Justice. NOMOS Vol. LI. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
A wide-ranging and theoretically informed collection of essays on theories, forms, policies, and effects of transitional justice. Particularly insightful discussions of compensation, reparations, and the relationship between transitional and normal justice.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Advanced Democracies, Electoral System Reform in
- Advanced Democracies, Public Opinion and Public Policy in
- Advertising and Election Campaigns in the United States
- Africa, Comparative Politics of
- American Indian Politics
- Arab-Israel Conflict, The
- Arendt, Hannah
- Aristotle's Political Thought
- Australia and New Zealand, Comparative Politics of
- Authoritarianism in Russia
- Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
- Biopolitics and State Regulation of Human Life
- Brazilian Political Development
- Business-State Relations in Europe
- Campaign Finance in the Era of Super-PACS
- Canadian Foreign Policy
- Candidate Emergence and Recruitment
- Channels of Electoral Representation in Advanced Industria...
- China's One-Child Policy
- China-Taiwan Relations
- Chinese Communist Party
- Chinese Economic Policy
- Chinese Nationalism
- Civil Society in South Asia
- Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Civil-Military Relations in Asia
- Civil-Military Relations in Latin America
- Class in American Politics
- Comparative Capitalism Theory
- Comparative Industrial Relations in Europe
- Comparative Politics of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bis...
- Comparative Politics of Chile and Uruguay
- Comparative Politics of Federalism
- Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa
- Congress, Defense, and Foreign Policy
- Congressional Reassertion of Authority
- Conservative Litigation Strategies and Groups in US Judici...
- Corruption in China
- Cosmopolitan Political Thought
- Crisis of European Integration in Historical Perspective, ...
- Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
- Cuban Political Development
- Cycles of Protest
- Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Democracy and Dictatorship in Central Asia
- Democracy in Latin America
- Democratic Citizenship
- Democratic Consolidation
- Democratic Peace Theory
- Democratic Theory
- Democratization in Africa
- Democratization in Central America
- Democratization in Mexico
- Development of Survey Research
- Direct Democracy in the United States
- East Africa, Politics of
- Economic Voting
- Election Forecasting
- Election Laws in Democracies
- Electoral and Party System Development in Sub-Saharan Afri...
- Electoral Change in Latin America
- Emotion and Racial Attitudes in Contemporary American Poli...
- Environmental Governance
- Environmental Politics among Advanced Industrial Democraci...
- Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy
- Ethnic Politics
- Eurasia, Comparative Politics of
- European Social Democracy
- European Union, Politics of the
- Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice
- Far-Right Parties in Europe
- Federalism in the United States
- Field Experiments
- Filibuster, The
- Gender and Electoral Politics in the United States
- Gender and International Relations
- Gender, Behavior, and Representation
- Global Inequality
- Globalization and the Welfare State
- Globalization, Health Crises, and Health Care
- Governance in Africa
- Governmental Responses to Political Corruption
- Gridlock and Divided Government in the U.S.
- Historiography of Twentieth-Century American Conservatism,...
- Hobbes’s Political Thought
- Hume’s Political Thought
- Hybrid Regimes
- Identity and Political Behavior
- Immigrant Incorporation in Canada
- Immigrant Incorporation in Western Europe
- Immigration and International Relations
- Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States
- Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior...
- Implicit Attitudes in Public Opinion
- Income Dynamics and Politics in North America and Europe
- Income Inequality and Advanced Democracies
- Income Inequality in the United States, The Politics of
- Indian Democracy
- Indigenous Rights and Governance in Canada, Australia, and...
- Informal Practices of Accountability in Urban Africa
- Institutional Change in Advanced Democracies
- Intellectual Property in International Relations
- Interest Groups and Inequality in the United States
- Interest Groups in American Politics
- International Conflict Management
- International Criminal Justice
- International Law
- International NGOs
- International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
- Internet and Politics, The
- Iran, Political Development of
- Israeli Politics
- Judicial Supremacy and National Judicial Review
- Judiciaries and Politics in East Asia
- Kant's Political Thought
- Labor Politics in East Asia
- Land Reform in Latin America
- Latin America, Democratic Transitions in
- Latin America, Environmental Policy and Politics in
- Latin America, Guerrilla Insurgencies in
- Latin America, Social Movements in
- Legal Mobilization
- LGBT Politics in the United States
- Liberal Pluralism
- Local Governments in the United States
- Machiavelli’s Political Thought
- Marx's Political Thought
- Mass Incarceration and US Politics
- Mechanisms of Representation
- Media Effects in Politics
- Media Politics in South Asia
- Minority Political Engagement and Representation in the Un...
- Modern Dynastic Rule
- Modern Elections and Voting Behavior in Europe
- National Interbranch Politics in the United States
- NATO, Politics of
- Negative Campaigning
- Neoclassical Realism
- New Institutionalism Revisited, The
- North America, Comparative Politics of
- Oil, Politics of
- Origins and Impact of Proportional Representation, The
- Outcomes of Social Movements and Protest Activities
- Partisan and Nonpartisan Theories of Organization in the U...
- Partisan Polarization in the US Congress
- Partisan Polarization in the US Electorate
- Party Networks
- Peace Operations
- Personality and Politics
- Plato's Political Thought
- Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion
- Political Economy of Financial Regulation in Advanced Ind...
- Political Economy of Taxation, The
- Political Geography in American Politics
- Political Obligation
- Political Parties and Electoral Politics of Japan
- Political Thought, Hegel's
- Political Thought of the American Founders, The
- Politics and Policy in Contemporary Argentina
- Politics of Anti-Americanism
- Politics of Class Formation
- Politics of Disaster Prevention and Management
- Politics of Financial Crises
- Politics of Foreign Direct Investment in South Asia
- Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.
- Politics of Internal Conquest in the United States and Can...
- Politics of Japan
- Politics of Natural Disasters, The
- Politics of North Korea
- Politics of Science and Technology
- Politics of South Africa
- Politics of Southern Africa
- Postcolonialism and International Relations
- Post-Communist Democratization
- Preferential Trade Agreements, Politics of
- Presidential Persuasion and Public Opinion
- Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
- Private Governance
- Public Opinion in Advanced Industrial Democracies
- Public Opinion in New Democracies and Developing Nations
- Public Presidency, US Elections, and the Permanent Campaig...
- Qualitative Methods, The Renewal of
- Race in American Political Thought
- Racial and Ethnic Descriptive Representation in the United...
- Regime Transitions and Variation in Post-Communist Europe
- Regional Integration in Latin America
- Regional Security
- Regulating Food Production
- Religion in American Political Thought
- Religion in Contemporary Political Thought
- Religion, Politics, and Civic Engagement in the United Sta...
- Rousseau's Political Thought
- Rule of Law
- Russia and the West
- Science and Democracy
- Social Policy and Immigrant Integration
- South Korea, Politics of
- Spectacle, The
- State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa
- State Formation
- State, The Nature of the
- Supreme Court of the United States, The
- Systemic Theories of International Politics
- Taiwan, Politics of
- Tea Party, The
- The New Right in American Political Thought
- Transitional Justice
- Transnational Private Regulation
- Turkey, Political Development of
- US Military Bases Abroad
- US Presidency, The
- Voter Turnout
- Welfare State Development
- Welfare State Development in Latin America
- Welfare State Development in Western Europe
- West Africa, Politics of
- Worker Politics in China
- Youth and Generational Differences in US Politics