Does transitional justice (TJ) strengthen or threaten societal peace in transitional countries? This review of recent scholarship finds a dearth of reliable evidence of TJ’s effects on institutions and policy processes at the state-level – positive or negative – despite strong claims by scholars and practitioners. It calls for more systematic and comparative analysis of the TJ record to advance evidence-based discussions of transitional justice impacts.
The review is based on an extensive survey of the empirical research on the effects of two prominent TJ mechanisms that have been widely applied in transitional countries and have received most attention: trials and truth commissions. Literature covered does not include grey literature including practitioner accounts and programme evaluations, and is limited to those studies which explicitly sought to evaluate outcomes of specific mechanisms in a comparative fashion across space or time. Of more than 100 TJ-related studies, there were 15 comparative works. Of these, 7 were fully or partly qualitative.
It is widely believed that TJ promotes reconciliation and psychological healing, respect for human rights and the rule of law and helps to establish conditions for democratic and peaceful government. However, reliable empirical knowledge on the state-level impacts of TJ is still limited. The literature does yet not provide policymakers with sound empirical foundations for making decisions about when, where and how to promote TJ. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Single-country studies that examine one instance of TJ cannot support strong general assertions about cause and effect.
- Single-case studies have tended to focus on a few well-documented TJ cases, such as Argentina, Chile and South Africa, creating a bias in the existing knowledge base.
- Cross-national comparisons have focused on a few well-documented cases (Latin America, mostly) with a particular context for transition that is not applicable everywhere.
- The existing literature analyses short-term TJ outcomes with no analysis of the deeper social, political or institutional changes that such processes seek to achieve.
- Most truth commission impact studies use narrow criteria for success, defining success as the degree to which a commission completed its objectives within a designated period.
A number of encouraging comparative studies are emerging. However, a lack of high-quality data (data sets with only a few indicators that are TJ-relevant or broadly accepted, missing data, limited scales, and coding biases), means that most countries show little change over time.
The existing literature has helped to clarify analytical challenges, but it does not yet provide policy makers with sound empirical foundations for making informed decisions. Moving towards more fact-based discussions will require:
- Systematic comparison across multiple countries consisting of statistical treatments of multiple countries over time or, of qualitative ‘controlled comparison’ of carefully chosen cases.
- consideration of attribution vs. contribution, and long-/short-term outcomes
- differentiation between cases by region, time, transition type, level of democracy, institutional capacity etc.
- informed consent, to ensure TJ interventions are supported at the outset and throughout by affected communities. Population-based surveys can help with this.