|The former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt listens to the judge's decision that he should stand trial. Photograph: Saul Martinez/EPA|
Kathryn Sikkink’s Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics (2011) examines the global changes that have made accountability possible. Specifically, Sikkink discusses the reasons that state officials are increasingly being held accountable for human rights violations through criminal prosecutions and the effects of these prosecutions in preventing future human rights violations. Sikkink frames the discussion in terms of a change in the global imagination. She asks how the world moved from a time when it was not impossible to imagine criminal accountability to a time when prosecutions are common. Sikkink’s findings are based on a database of human rights trials compiled by her research team at the University of Minnesota.
The emergence of international and domestic accountability
World War II’s Nuremberg and Tokyo trials mark a first instance of individual accountability, but Sikkink argues that these trials of state officials were only possible because the states were defeated and another state stepped in to initiate trials. After World War II states relied on the United Nations to organize pressure against states that violated human rights. The mid 70s and early 80s mark an important turning point; in these decades states began holding their own state officials accountable.
Sikkink argues that domestic human rights prosecutions are the most important in terms of the “justice cascade”; foreign and international tribunals are important back up systems (so that state officials cannot just go into exile as in the case of Baby Doc Duvalier.) Sikkink’s research shows that 55% of domestic trials are held in Latin American countries. In fact, 8 of the ten first countries to hold domestic trials are in Latin America: Greece (1975), Portugal (1979), Argentina (1983), Bolivia (1983), Haiti (1986), Guatemala (1988), Paraguay (1989), El Salvador (1990), Panama (1990), and Chile (1991). The emergence of accountability is also tied to the kind of transition that countries experience. This is one of the most interesting arguments in the book in terms of El Salvador because Sikkink argues that peace negotiations usually involve amnesty and prevent accountability. In Uruguay for example, the amnesty laws prevented former dictator (1973-1976) Juan María Bordaberry from being prosecuted until 2010. Countries that experience ruptured instead of pacted transitions tend to see more criminal prosecutions.
The spread of the individual accountability trend
Kathryn Sikkink argues that the individual accountability trend spreads throughout the globe through what Steve J Stern calls the “ants work” of people like Cherif Bassiouni and Luis Moreno Ocampo, human rights activists and lawyers that worked to put universal human rights theory into practice. The slow and persistent work of real people, often exiles, working in solidarity with international organizations like the IACHR (Inter American Commission of Human Rights) and later the ICC (International Criminal Court). For example, Sikkink describes in details the work of Cherif Bassiouni, and Egyptian lawyer that worked for the creation of the ICC (115-121). Luis Moreno Ocampo was the assistant prosecutor in Videla’s trial in 1985. Later he was asked to be a prosecutor in the first international criminal court (the ICC) because of his experience in Argentina. These individuals translated their work into organizations and formed networks of diffusion so that states could model their practices on those of other states. Sikkink gives the examples of Truth Commissions, new in Argentina in 1983, and that are now common practice.
Do prosecutions actually make a difference?
In the final part of the book Sikkink first turns to the work of sociologists who argue that an increase in the probability of punishment should deter crime (169-170, 173-177, 185-186, 227-228, 258-259). Prior to 1970 state officials had no chance of being punished and now state officials can imagine punishment. Then through a statistical study of her data Sikkink shows that countries that have used prosecutions have seen sustained improvements in human rights. In Latin America, the years of prosecution correlate with this improvement.
In sum, Sikkink argues that there are two streams of the “justice cascade”; a first international stream that begins with the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II and a second domestic stream that begins with Greece and Portugal in 1975. The “justice cascade” is a result of a concerted effort by a global human rights movement to diffuse models of justice. She argues that prosecutions do make a positive difference and are related to improvements in human rights. In the case of El Salvador Sikkink’s findings suggest that the impunity that the country is seeing today is related to the type of transition that the country experienced. If there had been a rupture instead of a negotiated transition to Democracy there would likely have been more criminal prosecutions.