Is transitional justice a measurement of democracy?


Current definitions of democracies often focus on electoral process and victory, but might not the response to past repression be more important? A number of the world’s countries have a legacy of corrupted political institutions and repressive governments. Today, many of these countries including Egypt, Syria and Tunisia are rising from these legacies. Since the post-communist world, democracy has been promoted as the governance system the above-mentioned countries should transition to for a peaceful future. More recently, societies and international development actors have begun to use transitional justice to effectuate the desire for societal stability, political transformation and trust among men, women and children who have ill-suffered during these legacies.

Since democracy and transitional justice are being presented as two practices most appropriate to rebuild countries from their experiences with past violent and repressive governments, it is worth exploring the relationship between the two.  As a plausible starting point, this article suggests that transitional justice is a measurement of democracy.

In plain language, democracy is a governance system that favors individual rights through civic engagement, gender representation and free market access to jobs, health and education[1]. Transitional justice is a series of processes that countries implement to address their specific experiences with past political institutions usually with grave crimes and atrocious violence against citizens[2].

Democracy and transitional justice are compatible because they are both fundamentally concerned with accountability and transparency and they both promote freedom human rights.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—an international actor that has been promoting democracy since 1983—promotes democracy through party building and candidate training, programs of voter and civic education, monitoring of elections, and efforts to involve citizens in monitoring the reform process[3]. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) employs a similar strategy, but one that is compounded with socioeconomic programs[4].

There are currently at least 32 truth commissions in countries all over the world, the first being created in Uganda in 1974. These commissions investigate disappearances and crimes of torture and abuse against humanity[5]. Other practices of transitional justice include criminal prosecution and historical inquiries to provide closure to societies about what happened to their loved ones, and reparation and reconciliation programs in effort to make victims whole[6].

Democracy promotes accountability and transparency in its demand for openness and inclusion of all citizens through the electoral process. Transitional justice promotes accountability and transparency through the criminal prosecutions, truth-seeking commissions and historical inquiries.

In light of these compatible features, there is still a definite distinction between democracy and transitional justice. Democracy is concerned with the entire citizenry of a country, whereas transitional justice is concerned with a small group of the citizenry—those directly affected. Despite the fact that transitional justice can effectuate democracy or that government officials might be deterred to avoid prosecution and jail time, all of which will benefit the whole, this distinction remains. But nevertheless, it is prima facie evidence that societies are moving towards a democratic system of governance when there are effective systems in place for victims to receive redress; an accountable and transparent system to identify and halting human rights violations through prosecutions; and fostering individual and national reconciliation[7].

Democracy is a lengthy process; and so where transitional justice practices are implemented and are effective and permanent, is no doubt a measurement of how close a country is to rising out of a repressive and violent government and towards democracy—a more open and peaceful governance system.

Accordingly, it is plausible to label transitional justice as a measurement of democracy because it is telling of whether a country is ripe for democracy.






[1]United Nations Development Programme, Section on Our Work, Democratic Governance, available at (last visited Feb. 22, 2013).

[2]International Center for Transitional Justice, Section on Transitional Justice, What is Transitional Justice, available at (last visited Feb. 22, 2013).

[3]The National Endowment for Democracy, Section on Democracy, 2012 Strategy Document, available at (last visited Jan. 5, 2013).

[4]United Nations Development Programme, Section on Our Work, Democratic Governance, available at (last visited Feb. 22, 2013).

[5]Amnesty International, Section on Transitional Justice, Truth Commissions, available at (last visited Jan. 5, 2013)

[6]Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice 223 (2002).

[7] Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice 214 (2002).

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