Lavinia Stan, “Transitional Justice,” available at:

Transitional justice refers to the measures and policies adopted by governments and civil society actors to address, and possibly redress, legacies of widespread and systematic human rights abuse, mass atrocity, genocide or civil war. In the growing scholarly literature developed during the last three decades and a half, “transitional justice” is often used interchangeably with terms and concepts such as “the politics of memory,” “the politics of history,” “the politics of memory,” “coming to terms with the past,” “reckoning with the past” or “de-communization.” The majority of countries confronting their recent past are new democracies attempting to move away from violent conflict, oppression and repression towards peace, democracy, the rule of law and respect for individual and collective rights, but a small fraction of countries are consolidated democracies. While some authors believe that transitional justice was first enacted after World War Ii, other authors place its origins much earlier.

The repertoire of methods governments can adopt to reckong with the recent past is vast and diverse. It includes court trials brought in national or international courts of law against high-ranking and low-ranking officials of the dictatorial regime; truth commissions reexamining the past in order to found out the truth about the repressive regime, and reconcile the society; programs to rewrite history textbooks in order to better reflect the plight of the victims; restitution of property abusively confiscated by the former regime; compensation packages for victims and/or their surviving relatives; and even the changing of names of streets and localities, the opening of new museums and exibitions, and the removal of statues of old dictators.

A country’s choice of a particular transitional justice method will depend first of all on the kind of atrocities it needs to address. For example, property restitution will not be adopted by countries where no property was confiscated in the past. Beyond this, the literature argues that countries will adopt more or less transitional justice depending on the nature of their dictatorial past (and the injustices inflicted), the type of exit from dictatorship to democracy, the balance of power between old and new elites in the first stages of democratization, and the legitimacy of the dictatorial and democratic regimes.

Tina Rosenberg drew attention to the fact that in Latin America repression was “deep,” while in eastern Europe it was “wide” to explain why very few court proceedings were launched against communist leaders and secret agents. John P. Moran also believed that “voice” (dissent) and “exit” (permission to emigrate) under communism explained a country’s appettite for revenge in post-communist times. According to Samuel Huntington, only Eastern European countries where the intransigent communist officials were replaced by new elites (Romania, East Germany) were willing to enact transitional justice legislation punishing former communist officials and secret agents. For Helga Welsh, the “politics of the present” rather than the “politics of the past” determined transitional justice. In other words, the balance of power between old and new elites predicted a country’s willingness to push transitional justice forward. New elites, drawn primarily from former dissident, anticommunist circles, were willing to enact transitional justice, whereas old elites who got a new lease on their political careers almost always blocked efforts to reexamine the past. Finally, Nedelsky and Stan argued that the legitimacy of the communist and post-communist elites explained why some countries reexamined and condemned their past sooner and more comprehensively.

Further readings:

Elster, Jon. Closing the Books. Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Welsh, Helga. Dealing with the Communist Past: Central and East European Experiences after 1990. Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 48, no. 3 (May 1996), pp. 413-428.
Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave of Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Kritz, Neil. Transitional Justice. How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes. Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 1995.
Nedelsky, Nadya. Divergent Responses to a Common Past: Transitional Justice in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Theory and Society, vol. 33, no. 1 (2004), pp. 65-115.
Stan, Lavinia. ed. Transitional Justice in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: Reckoning with the Communist Past. London: Routledge, 2008.
Teitel, Ruti. Transitional Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002