Debates over justice for gross human rights violations in active conflicts and transitions are often framed as a dilemma that emphasizes perceived tensions between human rights and democracy on one side and peace and stability on the other. Despite the prominence of the justice dilemma in the scholarly literature, little attention has been directed to examining its significance for global policy making. Beyond the rhetoric, it is unclear whether the dilemma frames the issues for key international actors and how it shapes their policies. This article addresses this gap by investigating the role of the justice dilemma in the foreign policy of the EU. First, it traces the origins of the dilemma and highlights important continuities in its framing over time. It then demonstrates how in pursuing ‘democratization’ and ‘stabilization’ approaches to justice, the EU often reproduces the underlying assumptions, perceived tensions and conventional solutions that circulate in scholarly and policy discussions. The final section examines the implications of the justice dilemma for European policy making. The article argues that the EU's preoccupation with the dilemma limits its ability to develop effective and innovative policies in this important field.