The European Union and transitional justice
Laura Davis | Initiative for Peacebuilding | 2010
The legacy of systematic human rights violations committed during violent conflict and repressive rule can reach
well into the new order. Transitional justice can help societies address the past through prosecutions, truthseeking,
reparations for victims and institutional reform. Justice in this sense includes and goes beyond criminal
justice, encompassing broader notions of accountability and redress.
Many EU Member States have experienced legacies of this kind – whether from the Second World War, the
Spanish Civil War, the conflict in Northern Ireland, or the transitions from authoritarian rule in Spain, Portugal,
Greece and Central and Eastern Europe. The EU itself was founded as a project to prevent the recurrence of
war, and some Member States have made attempts to come to terms with past abuses through prosecutions,
truth-seeking, reparations for victims, and reforming public institutions, particularly in the security sector.
Beyond its borders, the EU is a major contributor to development, crisis management, peace- and institutionbuilding
programmes – including transitional justice initiatives. It is committed to promoting peace, to the
protection of the EU’s rights and to the strict observance and the development of international law. One of the
objectives of the Union’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP) is ‘to consolidate and support democracy,
the rule of law, human rights and the principles of international law’.2 Transitional justice can help meet these
objectives, but the EU lacks policies, operational guidelines and tools for implementing these commitments.
This paper argues that rather than remain simply a supporter of transitional justice endeavours undertaken by
others, the EU should also draw on its experience at home and abroad, and on lessons learnt from other actors
such as the UN, to develop a strategic approach to transitional justice as a way of achieving its foreign policy
objectives. This could help close the credibility gap between declared commitments to peace, human rights and
international law and their realisation. The institutional reforms underway at the time of this writing provide the
opportunity to make this happen.
Transitional justice is a dynamic field, and closely related to areas of EU expertise, such as crisis management,
peace- and institution-building and development. Some of the connections between these fields are not yet fully
identified or researched, and the EU is well-placed to strengthen them. This would improve the impact of its
peace- and institution-building programmes and develop the field of transitional justice more broadly.
This paper briefly reviews transitional justice and its relationship to peacebuilding and crisis management,
institution-building (including security sector reform and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) and
development, given the importance of these areas to the EU. It then offers an overview of EU policy provisions
relevant to transitional justice. Finally, it draws conclusions and gives recommendations as a basis for future
elaboration of an EU approach to transitional justice.