Takeaways – Pablo de Greiff on Transitional Justice

November 2, 2017   Reading Time: 4 minutes

Reading Time: 4 min read

Three key takeaways from Mr. Pablo de Greiff’s lecture on “Transitional Justice” –

  1. Transitional justice, in a relatively short time period (twenty to thirty years), has become normalised, as an expected set of judicial and non-judicial measures that countries implement after a conflict. This rapid normative development merits both optimism and caution.
  2. Transitional justice is ineffective when politically partisan and/or implemented without a comprehensive and holistic policy. It should include all four of the following elements: a truth commission, prosecutorial strategy, reparations, and institutional reform.
  3. On the other hand, the components of transitional justice should not be viewed as a checklist of items to tick off. Far from being a formal exercise, transitional justice is a medium for governments to create fairer societies with civic trust and social integration.


  • Mr. Pablo de Greiff the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence delivered a lecture on “Transitional Justice” on 20 October 2017 at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.
  • The lecture was attended by the Commander of the Army, Foreign Secretary, scholars, activists, members of civil society, diplomats, and members of Sri Lanka’s armed forces.
  • The lecture was followed by a question and answer session with the audience, which was moderated by Dr. Dinusha Panditaratne, the Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.

Takeaways from Mr. Pablo de Greiff’s Lecture:

The Normalisation of Transitional Justice

  • Transitional justice has evolved into a field of study in its own right, with a range of actors (government ministries, international cooperation agencies and academics) engaged in diverse activities relating to transitional justice.
  • The rapid flow of information in today’s world has led to a faster dissemination of the learning process about transitional justice. Geographical distance is no longer an important barrier between countries that are keen on sharing ‘lessons learned’ from transitional justice cases.
  • Via normalisation, transitional justice has become a de facto expectation for countries that are undergoing a transition from authoritarian rule and conflict.
  • There is, however, a reason for caution in this rapid normalisation. Transitional justice mechanisms are being adopted as templates, without consideration for the specific histories and contexts of each particular case.  

Integration of Components of Transitional Justice

  • The four elements of transitional justice (a truth commission, development of a prosecutorial strategy, reparations programme, and some institutional reform) should be implemented holistically rather than in isolation.
  • Some governments have given more attention to specific elements, such as ‘reparations’, in the hope that it will negate the need for prosecutions. Ultimately, such measures disempower the victim.
  • When the four elements of transitional justice are implemented in a comprehensive policy framework, there is a stronger possibility of achieving four broader social and political objectives: recognition of victims, strengthening the rule of law, trust-building, and improving social integration.

The Aspirational Nature of Transitional Justice

  • Transitional justice exists in an international system with severe limitations.
    • No country can claim to have investigated, prosecuted, punished or compensated every human rights violation in its jurisdiction.
    • No country can claim that meaningful reforms have been carried out in each institution associated with human rights violations.
  • The success of transitional justice, rather than being contingent on international pressure, depends on the convergence of two factors:
    • An independent civil society that can clearly articulate its demands; and
    • A government that makes an honest attempt to look after the welfare of its citizens.

Points from the Question and Answer Session:

Institutional Aspects of Transitional Justice

  • The four elements of transitional justice do not need to be operationalised at the same time, but the overarching policy framework must simultaneously promote each component.
  • The viability of transitional justice programmes, such as reparations, depends more upon the political will and tenacity of a country’s government than the overall strength of its economy.

Overcoming the Victim / Perpetrator Dichotomy

  • The four aspects of transitional justice have a broader impact beyond redressing human rights violations and holding perpetrators accountable.
    • For example, they strengthen the rule of law and the associated institutional reform benefits society as a whole, rather than only the victims.
  • If a lack of trust exists within broader society, it can act as a barrier to economic activity and increase transaction costs, in addition to the constant costs of monitoring transitional justice programmes.
  • The success of transitional justice depends upon the protection of human rights for all concerned, including defending the rights of individuals during investigations and court proceedings. The transitional justice process should not be perceived as a political project.

Click here to listen to Mr. Pablo de Greiff’s lecture.

Click here to watch Mr. Pablo de Greiff’s lecture.

Suggested Readings:

Aboueldahab, N. (2017). Transitional justice policy in authoritarian contexts: The case of Egypt. Brookings. [online] Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/transitional-justice-policy-in-authoritarian-contexts-the-case-of-egypt/ [Accessed 26 October 2017].

Crowe, A. & Voelkel, C. (2013). The Five Challenges of Negotiating Transitional Justice in Colombia. International Crisis Group. [online] Available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombia/five-challenges-negotiating-transitional-justice-colombia [Accessed 26 October 2017].

De Greiff, P. (2017). Observations by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Mr. Pablo de Greiff, on the conclusion of his recent visit to Sri Lanka. United Nations Human Rights – Office of the High Commissioner. [online] Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22274&LangID=E  [Accessed 26 October 2017].

Fonseka, B., Raji, S., Saravanamuttu, P. & Woodworth, A. (2016). Accountability and Reparations for Victims of Conflict Related Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka. Centre for Policy Alternatives.[online] Available at:
http://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CSV-paper-June-2016.pdf  [Accessed 26 October 2017].

Jeffery, R. (2014). Sequencing Transitional Justice Mechanisms: Lessons from the Solomon Islands. Middle East Institute. [online] Available at: http://www.mei.edu/content/sequencing-transitional-justice-mechanisms-lessons-solomon-islands [Accessed 26 October 2017].

Roar Media. (2016). Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka: Issues, Challenges, and Prospects. [online] Available at: https://roar.media/english/reports/reports/transitional-justice-sri-lanka-issues-challenges-prospects/  [Accessed 26 October 2017].

Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (2016). Final Report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms. [online] Available at: http://www.scrm.gov.lk/documents-reports 
[Accessed 26 October 2017].

United Nations. (2010). Guidance Note of the Secretary-General: United Nations Approach to Transitional Justice. [online] Available at: https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/TJ_Guidance_Note_March_2010FINAL.pdf  [Accessed 26 October 2017].

Photos: Fluke by Ruvin de Silva


  • 2017


  • Malinda Meegoda


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