Briefing Paper

Traditional Transitional Justice Mechanisms – Lessons from Africa

Transitional justice is widely accepted as a process for countries to employ when transitioning from
authoritarian rule or armed conflict to democracy and in their quest to address legacies of systemic
violence and human rights violations. As defined by the African Union, transitional justice refers to
“the various (formal and traditional or non-formal) policy measures and institutional mechanisms
that societies, through an inclusive consultative process, adopt in order to overcome past violations,
divisions and inequalities and to create conditions for both security and democratic and socio-economic transformation.” While societies coming out of conflict or authoritarian rule have different histories, priorities and needs, commonly used mechanisms of transitional justice include criminal prosecutions, truth telling, reparations, institutional reforms, memorialisation, traditional justice, and vetting and lustration. The implementation of transitional justice is believed to be more effective, impactful and holistic when a combination of mechanisms is employed either simultaneously or sequentially. Drawing on African countries’ experiences, this policy brief examines the progress, prospects and problems in traditional transitional justice processes, particularly regarding their complementarity to state or formal processes in providing holistic justice for victims of past violations. Further, this policy brief draws attention to the reality of traditional justice mechanisms that operate in the absence of a state or formal transitional justice mechanism and in contexts were traditional justice is essentially the ‘only game in town.’