Transitional societies must contend with a range of complex challenges as they seek to come to terms with and move beyond an immediate past saturated with mass murder, rape, torture, exploitation, disappearance, displacement, starvation, and all other manner of human suffering. Questions of justice figure prominently in these transitional moments, and they do so in a dual fashion that is at once backward and forward looking. Successor governments must think creatively about building institutions that bring justice to the past, while at the same time demonstrate a commitment that justice will form a bedrock of governance in the present and future. This is no easy task, and shortcuts, both in dealing with the past and in building a just future, often appear irresistible. In Martha Minow’s words, justice at this juncture amounts to replacing “violence with words and terror with fairness,” and steering a “path between too much memory and too much forgetting.”
The template of mechanisms available to undertake transitional justice are familiar to those who work in this field: prosecutions (domestic and international); truth and reconciliation commissions; lustration (the shaming and banning of perpetrators from public office); public access to police, military and other governmental records; public apology; public memorials; reburial of victims; compensation or reparation to victims and/or their families (in the form of money, land, or other resources); literary and historical writing; and blanket or individualized amnesty. In most cases, justice demands the deployment of a number of these tools, given that no one of them can adequately address and repair the injuries of the past nor chart a fully just future. Transitional justice will always be both incomplete and messy.