The justice cascade

Trials of dictators: gathering power in the cause of human rights. By Greg Breining

Portrait: Kathryn Sikkink.
Kathryn Sikkink, political science professor, documents how justice cascades when brutal dictators go to court.
Photo by Darin Back

By Greg Breining

Kathryn Sikkink has had a ringside seat to a profound shift in attitudes toward justice.

As a University of Minnesota exchange student in 1976, she lived in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, during the depths of the civilian-military dictatorship.

A decade later she was living in Argentina, researching her dissertation on an unrelated topic, when the very first “trials of the juntas” brought former military dictators to justice. She realized there had been a sea change in the attitudes of the citizenry of Latin America -- something that academics were ignoring or discounting.

“My first objective was just to document something that people weren’t paying attention to,” says Sikkink, now a regents professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. The experience shaped her academic work and led her to write The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics, published this fall by W.W. Norton.

Despite misgivings by some academics, policy makers, and commentators that the threat of trials causes dictators to cling to power more ruthlessly, Sikkink believes the evidence shows something else -- that human rights trials have brought justice, greater respect for human rights, and more-benevolent governments.

“It’s not just wishful thinking on my part. It comes from careful empirical research,” says Sikkink. “I like to think of myself as a strong supporter whose support is based on strong empirical evidence.”

Needed: The perfect storm

The theme for Justice Cascade -- indeed, the concept behind the title -- came from Sikkink’s experience in Uruguay, a one-time democracy that had recently slid into authoritarianism and political violence. “People could barely imagine that their country would be returned to democracy.

But what they really didn’t imagine at all is that the people responsible for those murders could ever be held criminally accountable,” says Sikkink. “If people in Uruguay couldn’t even imagine that that would be possible, how did it happen?”

What happened is that people did begin to imagine the possibility and with that convergence of events justice became possible. “In order to have something new like this happen you have to have almost a perfect storm,” Sikkink says.

Modern human rights trials were presaged by the trials of former Nazi leaders in 1945-46. “It starts at Nuremberg because Nuremberg sets a lot of important principles. But Nuremburg is the exception that proves the rule,” says Sikkink. The Nazi trials occurred only because Germany was defeated.

More recent trials are different: “Now we’re having trials in countries in which there was no war, no foreign army.”

“The trend, I argue, actually began in Greece in 1975 with the fall of the colonels,” says Sikkink. “The Greeks become the first modern society that holds its own leaders criminally accountable for human rights violations.” The Greek colonels had blundered in Cyprus, triggering a Turkish invasion, and “were totally delegitimized.” With the state thus ruptured, a path was cleared for these unprecedented trials, she says. Portugal experienced its rupture with the Carnation Revolution of 1974.

The Argentine junta lost stature with its defeat in the Falkland Islands in 1982. In one country after another, as trials have followed regime change, the idea of holding former leaders accountable for human rights abuses is more easily imagined.

“That’s why it’s called the justice cascade,” says Sikkink. “There’s this notion of what we call a norms cascade.” Unimaginable norms become commonplace.

Testing the idea

But as the use of trials has exploded -- in the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Egypt, and elsewhere worldwide -- critics have contended the trials are dangerous and counterproductive. The most common critique is that the increasing threat that dictators will be brought to justice ups the ante and steels the leaders against compromise: military leaders will stage coups to forestall any possibility of trials.

“The dilemma is, dictators have hung on to power for a long time,” says Sikkink, “Stroessner of Paraguay for 40 years. So somehow the notion that dictators in the old days didn’t hang on to power and nowadays, because of this threat of prosecution, they are all of a sudden going to hang on to power longer is a little questionable. How are we going to test that idea?”

Sikkink and her colleagues created a database of all “transitional prosecutions” from 1979 to the present. It turned out to be an affirmation of evidence-based research in the social sciences, revealing, she says, that “The use of human rights prosecutions is associated with improvements in human rights....In Latin America, which has had more trials than any other region of the world, the dictatorships have not lasted longer. We have virtually no dictatorships anymore in the region. We’ve had a huge upsurge in trials, and we’ve had the most complete transition to democracy of any of the less-developed regions of the world.”

While so-called realists may oppose human rights trials because they aren’t keen on the principle of international law, passionate advocates of international law may oppose human rights trials because they fall so far short of their ideals, says Sikkink. At a recent conference she met an academic who condemned the Cambodian trials of former Khmer Rouge dictators because they provided cover for the present regime.

“I can’t believe that no justice would be better than imperfect justice,” Sikkink told her. “Even if we only get five convictions, that’s better than zero convictions.”

The role of the United States has ranged from inspiring to obstructionist. America played a large role in the Hague trials for crimes committed during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, including political leaders Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić. On the other hand, the United States opposed the creation of an International Criminal Court except under the control of the United Nations Security Council, where the United States wielded a veto. “We failed,” says Sikkink. “Sometimes we are defeated by a coalition of smaller like-minded states and non-governmental organizations.”

It is said that justice delayed is justice denied, but “one of the lessons of the book is that there is no swift justice,” says Sikkink. “Justice very often comes slowly.”

And when it does, the world is often spectator to a defendant, a former strongman, frail and nearing death. Says Sikkink, “People say, ‘Let’s just let them go. What can be gained from prosecuting these individuals?’

“The problem is if you don’t have trials, sometimes people rewrite history and say, ‘That never happened!’ In Argentina, where the trials left this incredible record, no one can deny anymore that 10,000 or 15,000 people were ‘disappeared’ by the military regime. You can’t deny it. And I think as a result, there will never again be an authoritarian regime in Argentina.”

Greg Breining has written for publications including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly and is the author of several books.

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on December 2, 2011 10:16 AM.

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