Friday, September 16, 2011

Making Tyrants Do Time

by Kathryn Sikkink

New York Times

September 15, 2011

Time is running out for former government officials accused of murder, genocide and crimes against humanity. In the past few months, the final Serbian war-crimes fugitives were extradited to The Hague, the trial of the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, began in Cairo, and the International Criminal Court opened hearings on the post-election violence that plagued Kenya in 2007-8.

These events have provoked a chorus of trial skeptics, who contend that the threat of prosecution undermines democracy, exacerbates conflict and could lead to greater human rights violations.

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 we do not know whether extraditions would destabilize El Salvador, or whether Sudan and Libya would have been better off than they are today if the I.C.C. had not indicted Mr. Bashir or Colonel Qaddafi.

Indeed, those arguments rest on proving or disproving a counterfactual. While the I.C.C. indictment may have prompted Colonel Qaddafi’s desire to hide once he left power, we do not know whether it shortened his last days in power or prolonged them.

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.