Comparative Politics

Do Human Rights Prosecutions Deter Dictators From Leaving Power? Another Follow-Up to Sikkink

Sep 20 '11

In response to “James Hollyer’s response in The Monkey Cage”:http://tmc.local/blog/2011/09/19/human-rights-prosecutions-and-distinguishing-between-nascent-democracies-and-autocracies-a-response-to-sikkink/ yesterday to Kathryn Sikkink’s New York Times op-ed from this weekend, “Abel Escriba-Folch”: of the University of Pompeu Fabra and “Joe Wright”: of Penn State Univesrity send along the following comments:

Similar to Hollyer’s response to the Kim and Sikkink paper and op-ed, Abel Escriba-Folch and I wondered if human rights prosecutions deter dictators from leaving power. Using the Kim and Sikkink data on transition human rights prosecutions (THRPs), we examine the correlation between THRPs in neighboring countries and the likelihood of authoritarian survival. Our expectation is that neighbor THRPs should be correlated with a lower likelihood of a transition to democracy — but only for dictatorships where the incumbent regime has few domestic guarantees of a happy post-exit fate. As “Huntington (1991)”: noted twenty years ago, personalist dictators are the least likely to have institutional guarantees of their interests once they leave power because they typically lack either a strong party or a threatening military. Indeed, this is what we find:

We do not find a statistical relationship between THRPs and the likelihood of transition to a subsequent dictatorship, which makes sense to us because dictators are typically punished by domestic or international courts once the country transitions to a democracy.

At first glance, our results for human rights prosecutions might appear to be at odds with the “Kim and Sikkink”: finding that these prosecutions reduce repression in transition countries. The reason underlying both, however, may be the same: human rights prosecutions increase the costs of repression by raising the likelihood of post-exit punishment. (See “Goemans 2008”: for excellent work on leaders’ post-exit fate.)

These findings can be reconciled once we consider the time inconsistency problem in the optimal treatment of dictators (“Sutter 1995”: Ideally, we would like to punish dictators to deter future repression. Kim and Sikkink provide evidence consistent with this logic, warranting optimism for the future of international campaigns to prosecute repressive leaders. However, we would also like dictators to leave power peacefully, preferably in a transition leading to democracy. If human rights prosecutions raise exit costs for dictators by increasing the chances they are prosecuted once they leave power, prosecutions could both deter future repression in countries that transition and prolong authoritarian rule in dictatorships where incumbents have weak institutional guarantees.

As this is a work in progress, feedback is very welcome. The details are “here”: .