What is the impact of putting former national leaders on trial for massive violations of human rights? Surely, most who are aware of the crimes, and certainly the surviving victims, find value in the trials and convictions of murderous leaders and their associates. On the other hand, there are cases in which such prosecutions may forestall healing; few, for example, have questioned Nelson Mandela’s decision not to seek criminal trials for the former leaders of South African apartheid.

Until Kathryn Sikkink’s remarkable new book, most treatments of this issue scrutinized the unique features of particular cases. In “Justice Cascade,” however, Sikkink, who teaches political science at the University of Minnesota, goes beyond earlier studies to ask whether one can draw general conclusions from surveying all of the cases. She makes two strong arguments in favor of such trials: first, that holding former leaders legally accountable strengthens the prospects for successful transitions to democracy; and, second, that there is a cascade effect: as such trials become the norm worldwide, violators are left with few places to run. Thus, trying high-ranking violators of international law may be the best deterrent against such crimes in the future.

“Justice Cascade” also provides riveting accounts of specific human rights prosecutions against deposed dictators in Europe, Latin America and Africa. Though the book was completed before the Arab uprising, the timing of its publication is certainly propitious. The specter of a new wave of prosecutions — either in the home country or in some international tribunal — hangs over the heads of former leaders Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the still-struggling Bashar al-Assad of Syria, along with some of their family members and associates.

Sikkink argues against skeptics who see such prosecutions and trials as spectacular shams that lead to neither real justice nor peace. She maintains that the proliferation of human rights prosecutions in Latin America, Europe and Africa has become a powerful tool for facilitating democratic transitions and preventing leaders elsewhere from undertaking brutal human rights violations. Armed with empirical data, she argues that Latin America — thanks to the widespread use of trials — has achieved a better record of democratization and human rights than Eastern Europe, the former U.S.S.R., Asia or Africa. In this way, she undercuts the argument that countries should postpone holding trials until after they have consolidated their transitions to democracy. For Sikkink, early decisions to launch trials in Argentina, Guatemala and Peru dramatized the arrival of a new order and may have prevented anti-democratic challenges.

Sikkink then turns to the Bush administration’s reinterpretations of laws regarding what constitutes torture and the rights of accused terrorists. The common view is that those officials have escaped all legal repercussions for the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, or the transfer of suspects to countries such as Egypt, where they faced torture. In fact, Sikkink explains how, as more and more countries conclude that human rights abuses should be prosecuted, former senior officials such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have learned that they are no longer immune from prosection and may risk arrest when traveling outside the United States.

‘The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics’ by Kathryn Sikkink (Norton)

To illustrate the growing power of human-rights prosecutions, Sikkink recounts famous historical cases, which begins with the Nuremberg trials (1945-46) and Tokyo trials (1946-48). The second phase involves domestic prosecutions in southern Europe (Portugal and Greece) in the 1970s, followed by Argentina in 1985. The pivotal Argentinean trials helped prompt additional human-rights prosecutions throughout Latin America. The third phase coincides with the revival of international criminal tribunals in Yugoslavia in 1991 and Rwanda in 1994. Cumulatively, Sikkink notes, these domestic and foreign prosecutions have generated domestic and international laws that make government officials personally accountable for human rights violations.

Sikkink’s historical and global approach makes it possible to consider whether we are indeed witnessing the development and diffusion of a new international norm. For her, the verdict is clear: Human-rights prosecutions are a “contagion” and have been crucial to building new democracies. One may question, however, whether that contribution is as important as she believes.

Largely missing from her account are both the broader context in which transitions to democracy occur and a more precise comparison among different types of countries in transition. Is it true, as she maintains, that post-1989 failures to achieve democracy within the former Soviet bloc can be attributed to a lack of prosecutions of former officials? How, one wonders, can she account for those current members of the European Union that became robust democracies without any trials of former communist officials? Can an authoritarian country in transition afford to let trials result in a purge of its administrative elite, potentially crippling prospects for a functioning state (let alone a democratic one)? Can these trials avoid being tainted by vengeance? Sikkink could have addressed these questions more thoroughly. Yet one is grateful to her for launching serious analysis of the role of such prosecutions in democratic transitions.

An unexpected strength of this book is the author’s effective interweaving of scholarly analysis and personal reflection. In what amounts to almost a parallel narrative, she sheds her academic skin, injecting biographical notes, lively anecdotes, insightful stories and interviews into her narrative. This is refreshing and creative, infusing a level of human drama that should engage a much wider audience than political scientists and international lawyers. “Justice Cascade” is both a stimulating analysis of an emerging feature of world politics and a contribution toward increasing the odds that today’s violators of human rights will one day be held accountable.


Micheline Ishay is a professor of international studies and human rights at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and author of “The History of Human Rights.”


How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics

By Kathryn Sikkink

Norton. 342 pp. $27.95