Kathryn Sikkink


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

Cover Interview of December 11, 2011


I hope the reader will understand that I don’t have a simple recipe to offer for transitional justice.  Each country will find its own way, and craft its unique response.  But I do offer some preliminary policy advice, both from many years of observing countries make choices about how to address the human rights violations that happened in the past, and from the quantitative and qualitative analyses on the effectiveness of trials.  I believe that this advice is directly relevant to the US as we grapple with questions of accountability for torture.  The most striking fact that stands out in all the research for this book is that it has not been easy for any country in the world to confront its past.  Almost all leaders, originally faced with the dilemmas of accountability, have wanted to turn the page and look toward the future, not the past.  Even in countries like Greece and Argentina, where there were strong popular demands for accountability, leaders have faced agonizing choices that they feared could lead to military coups.

When they are making tough decisions about accountability, governments should keep in mind the results of systematic empirical research.  First, there is now strong reason to believe that the use of human rights prosecutions in transitional countries is associated with improvement in human rights.  Scholars still don’t agree entirely about the conditions under which those improvements occur, but most research has found correlations between the use of prosecutions and improvements in human rights.  Second, I can say with certainty that governments do not have to choose between eithertruth or justice.  It appears that most transitional justice policies are complementary, not mutually exclusive.  This does notmean that government must or even should immediately and simultaneously launch truth commissions and far-reaching prosecutions.  It just means that over time successful transitional societies have usually used combinations of restorative and retributive justice, and that these have been more likely to be complementary strategies than mutually exclusive ones.

Finally, my cases show that the desire for justice is very persistent, and that if political conditions for prosecutions are not right immediately after transition, such prosecutions can be held later.  Countries (and victims) don’t have to choose to forgive or to punish.  Indeed many survivors of human rights violations, may find it easier to forgive if there has been some kind of accountability. Most importantly, we do not have clear evidence yet that governments have to choose between peace and justice.  It is time to put false dichotomies behind us and begin a more nuanced debate about the conditions under which trials can contribute to improving human rights and enhancing rule of law systems, or what sequence or judicious combination of transitional justice mechanisms can help build democracy and resolve conflicts.