We’ve all heard that there is no peace without justice and vice versa. But, when policy makers and leaders discuss how to handle national and international conflicts, peace and justice are often pitted against each other. Recently, the trial of Hosni Mubarak and the Internal Criminal Court’s opening hearings on Kenya have elicited many criticisms that prosecuting leaders who have grossly violated human rights will in fact undermine democracy and exacerbate conflict. Political Scientist Kathryn Sikkink considers these claims in a New York Times Op-Ed.
Critics argue that the threat of prosecution leads dictators like Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan to entrench themselves in power rather than negotiate a transition to democracy. In El Salvador, where domestic courts have refused to extradite officers accused of murdering Jesuit priests 22 years ago, critics claim that such a prosecution would undermine stability and sovereignty.
But, Kathryn’s research provides evidence to question some of these concerns.
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.
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.
Kathryn believes that the possibility of punishment and disgrace deters future leaders from violating human rights.
From the final Nuremberg trials in 1949 until the 1970s, there was virtually no chance that heads of state and government officials would be held accountable for human rights violations. But in the last two decades, the likelihood of punishment has increased, and newly installed officials may be more cautious before deciding to murder or torture their political opponents.
So, while confronting the past may be painful and difficult, it could result in a better future.