Policy & Papers

Twenty Lessons from Twenty Years of Transitional Justice in Asia

According to the United Nations, the term transitional justice (TJ) covers all of the strategies a nation employs to address a history of mass human rights violations. Although this may include a broad range of steps designed for particular contexts, usually those approaches will also fit within the four basic pillars of the TJ framework.

The four pillars are:

  • uncovering and making public the truth about the violations, including the root causes;
  • prosecution of those responsible for mass crimes;
  • attempting to repair the lives of victims;
  • and undertaking the social, legal and institutional reforms needed to make recurrence less likely.

The different strategies that relate to each of the four pillars do not need to be implemented at the same time but rather should be sequenced according to the needs and opportunities in the context. However, all of the four pillars should be included in a holistic TJ strategy.

This publication does not attempt to more deeply analyse or interpret the meaning of transitional justice or the duties under the four pillars, which are more than adequately covered in many academic papers. The aim of this paper is to provide a relatively short, simple language guide to some key lessons that have emerged from efforts to deal with legacies of mass violations in Asian contexts.

The lessons are drawn from inputs from the more than 60 Asian TJ experts that are part of Transitional Justice Asia Network (TJAN), an initiative created and managed by Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR). This paper draws particularly from the inputs of those TJAN experts that attended the five-day workshop focused on two decades of TJ lessons in Asia, held in Aceh, Indonesia in March 2018. The paper also draws on the author’s own experience in transitional contexts in Asia over the past two decades. Each of the many lessons could itself be the subject of a full study, and there are many more not mentioned here. The paper provides only very brief summaries of each.

In the deep mud of anger, pain, division, and hope that are entangled in every Asian transition, civil society organizations (CSOs) are courageously finding ways to move the cart of justice, truth, and dignity for victims forward. Often the heavy weight of the past crimes in the back of the cart and the thickness of the mud beneath seem too great to overcome and forward movement appears impossible. Still they move forward, inspired by the courage and determination of the survivors. The lessons in this paper are dedicated to those survivors and the human rights defenders who stand beside them.