Transitional justice is the provision of justice in the transition from one form of government, often perceived as illegitimate, unjust, and tyrannical, or an anarchic society, to one that observes the rule of law and administers justice. It also is about choices: how to allocate scarce prosecutorial, judicial, police, and prison resources. The goal is to make the rule of law ordinary. A 2004 report of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General on the rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and postconflict societies observed that most examples of transitional justice involved states emerging from civil war or widespread civil unrest such that government became impossible:
Our experience in the past decade has demonstrated clearly that the consolidation of peace in the immediate post-conflict period, as well as the maintenance of peace in the long term, cannot be achieved unless the population is confident that redress for grievances can be obtained through legitimate structures for the peaceful settlement of disputes and the fair administration of justice.
Syria after President Bashar al-Asad may pose uniquely Syrian challenges and solutions, but it will hardly be alone in having to undergo transition from dictatorship and civil war to something else. The process inevitably involves transitional justice in some form.
Transitional justice can encompass everything from highly formalized— some might say ritualized—administration of justice, establishment of accountability, and social reconstruction to nothing at all. It may involve external assistance or imposed institutions. The modern history of transitional justice includes the exile of Napoleon to St. Helena, the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, and the post–World War II trials of German and Japanese war criminals as well as the role played today by international, national, and mixed national-international tribunals; truth commissions; general, partial, and conditional amnesties; and other devices in the process of rebuilding a society traumatized by war.