18 September 2011

Political Science in the News - Kathryn Sikkink on Former Dictators & Human Rights

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post and have thought it might be useful to start calling attention to the work of political scientists more generally as it appears in the press. This past week Kathryn Sikkink published this Op-Ed in The New York Times. In the essay - "Making Tyrants Do Time" - Sikkink argues against those who resist holding deposed authoritarian leaders to account because they suspect that doing so "undermines democracy, exacerbates conflict and could lead to greater human rights violations." In other words they have essentially strategic reasons for not upholding political commitment to the rule of law.But Sikkink actually went out an looked and generated a result that I have to admit I find surprising:
"Historical and statistical evidence gives us reason to question criticisms of human rights trials. My research shows that transitional countries — those moving from authoritarian governments to democracy or from civil war to peace — where human rights prosecutions have taken place subsequently become less repressive than transitional countries without prosecutions, holding other factors constant.

By comparing countries like Argentina and Chile that have used human rights prosecutions with those like Brazil that have not, I found that prosecutions tended not to exacerbate human rights violations, undermine democracy or lead to violence.

Of 100 countries that underwent a transition from 1980 to 2004 (the period for which extensive data is available), 48 pursued at least one human rights prosecution, and 33 of those pursued two or more. Countries that have prosecuted former officials exhibit lower levels of torture, summary execution, forced disappearances and political imprisonment. Although civil war heightens repression, prosecutions in the context of civil war do not make the situation worse, as critics claim.

Such evidence doesn’t tell us what will happen in any individual country, but it is a better basis from which to reason than a counterfactual guess. The possibility of punishment and disgrace makes violating human rights more costly, and thus deters future leaders from doing so"
I have to say that this is a remarkable finding, since my presumption is that trials would generate just the sorts of nasty consequences that Sikkink shows do not occur. She does not over sell the point. But this is a nice basis on which to assess how best to reconcile strategic apprehensions and political commitments in particular cases.

And, of course, given the Obama administration's handling of our own war criminals - you know the torture team from the Bush administration - I find this concluding remark insightful: "Almost all leaders, when faced with calls for accountability, have wanted to turn the page and look toward the future. But demands for justice are robust, and countries that have held former leaders accountable have in most cases come away stronger." Of course we are not literally making a transition from authoritarian rule. But maybe the analogy is close enough that our own President should pay heed.

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