Kathryn Sikkink


On her book The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics

Cover Interview of December 11, 2011

The wide angle

The first source of the justice cascade was the post-World War II trials in Nuremburg, where Nazi officials were held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  These well-publicized trials established a precedent for international legal prosecution that, though rarely invoked in the decades that followed, laid the foundations for the development of modern international prosecuting bodies such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and later the International Criminal Court.

The second source of the justice cascade came from individual countries that launched human rights prosecutions through their own courts: Greece, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, and others. These prosecutions, despite their mixed record of success, placed the legal power of prosecution in the domestic courts and the hands of the people. The third source is a constellation of crucial international treaties—such as the 1948 Geneva Convention and the 1987 Convention Against Torture—that provided a shared international framework for holding individuals criminally accountable for human rights violations.

Together these three sources merged into a surprisingly powerful human rights movement that has touched all parts of the world, although it has been strongest in Latin America and Europe.

All revolutions provoke a reaction, and the justice cascade has a formidable number of critics and opponents : from academic critics who question the value of human right prosecutions to world leaders who fear the cascade represents a threat to their sovereignty. These critics claim that human rights prosecutions are international interventions that destabilize countries and encourage further human rights abuses.

Based on extensive study—including one of the first major statistical analyses of the trend—the book dismantles these arguments.  I show that most human rights prosecutions are local affairs, with citizens mobilizing their domestic courts to bring justice to rights abusers.  The numbers further show that prosecutions have a deterrent effect: countries that prosecute rights abusers often later enjoy better human rights situations than countries that fail to do so.  I then use this evidence to explore the U.S. case of torture and ill-treatment of detainees during the Bush administration, and ask if the United States has been immune to the Justice Cascade.

As I explain in the book, I came to this issue very early, first as a young exchange student living in Uruguay during the worst days of the dictatorship, later as a staff person with a human rights organization working on Latin America based in Washington, D.C., and finally as an academic researching the spread of human rights ideas and practices in the world.  This book is a story not only about changes in the world, but also about my own personal and scholarly journey.  In some ways, I came upon the unfolding processes of justice by accident.  But this discovery has shaped my outlook on the world and its possibilities, leaving me at times both frustrated and inspired.