Contra Trial Skepticism
The decision of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, to file genocide charges against President Bashir has generated the familiar wave of alarmist commentary in the op-ed pages of newspapers and blogs such as this one. The Associated Press called is “a high-risk strategy that could backfire against the people in the war-torn desert region.” Andrew S. Natsios, in this blog pages, argued that “This indictment may well shut off the last remaining hope for a peaceful settlement for the country.”
The latest round of alarmism is yet another echo of trial skepticism that has been around since domestic human rights trials became a political possibilities in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. I would argue that this alarmism both places too much importance on the tribunals, and does not reflect the history of what we have learned about the impact of human rights trials. It gives too much importance to tribunals instead of treating them as just one, not very powerful actor, in a complex negotiating situation. The situation of course requires active diplomacy and involvement by foreign governments and international organizations. The Security Council and foreign governments are entitled to take political issues into account when they make their decision about whether they will endorse and assist the efforts to arrest Mr. Bashir and bring him to a trial. They are political organs, and are entitled to act in political ways, weighing the circumstances. And while we know that courts too are political actors, they are different kinds of political actors, and it is not their job to pull their punches just because some believe that it might expedite the much delayed peace process in Sudan. The possible court indictments are simply one more factor in the complex strategic landscape of the negotiations in Sudan.
My studies of past human rights trials have shown that in every case of a human rights trial, whether domestic, foreign, or international, there are always commentators who claim that trials of any sort will have dire consequences, and yet there is very little evidence that human rights trials, whether after a peaceful transition, or in a time of war, has ever been a factor leading to deaths or more human rights violations. Have we forgotten the clamor in the wake of Pinochet’s arrest in London, which claimed that this arrest would lead to a military coup in Chile? And yet, democracy in Chile did not suffer, and indeed may have benefited from the legal processes set off by the arrest of Pinochet.
If Moreno Ocampo is cool in the face of the accusations, it may be because he had been there before. As a young assistant prosecutor in the trials of the Juntas in Argentina in 1985, he was accustomed to the alarmist commentary that prosecutions would be responsible for provoking a coup or more atrocities. Indeed, the argument that trials undermine democracy came largely from observations of this single case: the early coup attempts in Argentina against the Alfonsin government after it carried out the trials of the juntas for past human rights violations. But almost twenty years have passed since those failed coup attempts, and Argentina has had more transitional human rights trials than any other country in the world and has enjoyed the longest uninterrupted period of democratic rule in its history.
My article on Latin American human rights trials (with Carrie Booth Walling) published last year in the Journal of Peace Research shows that trials there did not inadvertently promote atrocities, increase human rights violations, exacerbate conflict or threaten democracy. Since 1978 when the first trials were initiated in the region, there have been only three examples of coups in Latin America, and none was provoked by human rights trials. The remaining 14 countries that used trials have not had a successful coup attempt since the use of trials, and in many cases, are increasingly considered consolidated democratic regimes.
A second quantitative article looking at the impact of human rights trials in the world (co-authored with Hunjoon Kim) presented at the American Political Science Association last year used our new dataset on human rights trials in 100 countries that experienced transition from non-democratic regime to democracy or from armed conflict to peace. Contrary to the arguments by trial skeptics, we find that human rights trials after transition lead to improvements in human rights protection. This finding holds even in cases of civil war, though of course, civil wars do provoke increases in human rights violations. Not only did we find evidence the human rights trials may have some deterrent effects within the country holding the trials, but we also found that trials in neighboring countries with similar culture have a possible deterrence impact beyond the confines of the single country. While such a study can not tell us anything specific about the situation of Sudan, it does suggest that we should perhaps temper the skepticism and alarmism about the impact of the ICC there.
Just as the frightening but ultimately unsuccessful coup attempts in Argentina drove some of the early pessimism in the transitions literature, the failure of international justice to dampen nationalism in Serbia or to help end conflicts in Uganda or Sudan may fuel current trial skepticism. And, just as the transition literature was too hasty in its judgments about the impossibility and undesirability of trials in Latin America, current trial skeptics might be well advised to monitor the situations in the former Yugoslavia, Uganda, and Sudan longer before jumping to conclusions about the pernicious effects of trials. One benefit of the Latin American cases is that they provide these longer time horizons to evaluate outcomes because more time has passed since transitions to democracy.
What the trial skepticism leads us to forget at times is that the problem is not the ICC, or the indictments per se. The problem is a president capable of blackmailing the international community by threatening to kill international peacekeepers or aid workers if faced with the possibility of prosecution. The rise of legal accountability for past human rights violations is one part of a solution to this problem. The transition to this system of legal accountability for past human rights violations will not be easy, and the Sudanese case falls directly in the middle of this transition. We do not know how the case will turn out. But past cases at least suggest that the threat of legal accountability has not worsened already complex human rights situations and may in the long run contribute the improving them.
Kathryn Sikkink is the Arleen C. Carlson Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.