On the Value of Human Rights Prosecutions

by John Sides on September 17, 2011 · 8 comments

in Comparative Politics,Judicial,Law

Kathryn Sikkink in the New York Times:

My research shows that transitional countries — those moving from authoritarian governments to democracy or from civil war to peace — where human rights prosecutions have taken place subsequently become less repressive than transitional countries without prosecutions, holding other factors constant.

By comparing countries like Argentina and Chile that have used human rights prosecutions with those like Brazil that have not, I found that prosecutions tended not to exacerbate human rights violations, undermine democracy or lead to violence.

Of 100 countries that underwent a transition from 1980 to 2004 (the period for which extensive data is available), 48 pursued at least one human rights prosecution, and 33 of those pursued two or more. Countries that have prosecuted former officials exhibit lower levels of torture, summary execution, forced disappearances and political imprisonment. Although civil war heightens repression, prosecutions in the context of civil war do not make the situation worse, as critics claim.

The piece is here.  Here is some of her related research (pdf).



Alan September 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Perhaps causality ran in the opposite direction – their prior commitment to human rights led to a higher rate of convictions.

Jay Ulfelder September 18, 2011 at 10:58 am

For another empirical study that shows no positive effect from international tribunals and domestic trials on peace and human rights after civil wars, see this article from the November 2010 issue of International Studies Perspectives: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1528-3585.2010.00414.x/abstract. This other study doesn’t show any negative effects, either, but it does make me wonder how strong the purported positive effects really are.

OVB September 18, 2011 at 11:41 am

This study obviously suffers from omitted variable bias. Surely there are some set of characteristics of the regime and/or state of the country that drives both the propensity to hold trials, and the likelihood of later repression/violence.

snjmom September 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm

I wonder how the SA Truth and Reconciliation process fared and whether mea culpa’s are as good as a prosecution.

Sam McFarland September 18, 2011 at 5:12 pm

It is important to take the long and global view.

For the short and local view, it may well be that prosecuting a tyrant could impede democracy, exacerbate internal conflict, and make reconciliation harder (even though there is little evidence supporting these claims).

But for the long and global view, it is vital to establish that any tyrant who commits genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity can and will be brought to justice. As that is progressively achieved, these crimes will be increasingly deterred.

That is why it is so important to prosecute current tyrants, either through national or regional courts, or through the International Criminal Court.

idiot September 18, 2011 at 9:23 pm

It’s also important to know that:
1) In the long run, we’re all dead.
2) We don’t know how long the “long run” will be. It could be 10 years, 20 years, 100 years, maybe 10,000 years. This is important because if we don’t know how long the “long run” will be, we do not know how to verify if an action would indeed be good in the “long run”, since we’ll have to keep on waiting and waiting.

Probably better to prove that human rights prosecutions indeed have short term benefits, or at least no harms so you have no excuse not to do them.

Sam McFarland September 19, 2011 at 10:34 am

You know, I am glad that the anti-slavery campaigners of the 18th century, the suffragettes of the 19th century, or the campaigners for a genocide convention in the 20th didn’t take “‘idiot”‘s (his self-designation, not mine) advice. Campaigns for human justice always take a long time, but they win in the long run — perhaps a century.

Travel around the world today and talk to folks, and you will discover that the ICC is already deterring war crimes and crimes against humanity. Old dictators may continue to practice these to hold desperately onto power, but new rulers who come into power in the future won’t do so.

idiot September 19, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I call myself “idiot” here because it is better to doubt that you have accurate knowledge about the world. Often times, you’d be right.

First off, more people are enslaved today than they were in the past. Granted, the proportion of people being enslaved had been reduced, but this is not “win in the long term” material. Triumphalism and inevitability can be extremely grating, especially if the actual data disagrees with you.

Second, these nameless “folk” you want me to travel all over the world and talk to can also be matched by me naming other nameless “folk” who view the ICC as hurting the causes of human rights. We live in a world where billions of people have their own ideas and opinions; why should any of these people’s opinions be prioritized over anyone else’s? Especially when you got hard data to support or disprove one opinion.

Finally…keep in mind that I say “no harms so you have no excuse not to do them”. The two studies linked in this post agreed that human right trials has no HARMS whatsoever. No penalties, no disasters, nothing. In that case, if it does not matter if you do trials or not, you might as well do them for other reasons (say, “human justice”, whatever that may be). Uselessness is actually an argument in favor of these trials, because they could be very popular.

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