The murder trial of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak encountered difficulties this week when prosecutors said that video evidence provided by the intelligence agencies was “worthless.” Egyptians concerned about justice need not lose hope, but they should be aware that the path to judicial accountability is often full of detours.
Human-rights prosecutions around the globe have grown dramatically in the last 20 years, but in no case have they occurred smoothly and without delays, backlash, push-back and unexpected legal maneuvers. These prosecutions are taking place in international tribunals, like the Ad-Hoc Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, (the ICTY); in “hybrid” international-domestic courts, like the Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodia; in foreign courts, like the prosecution Gen. Augusto Pinochet faced in the U.K.; and in domestic courts, like the ones in Egypt. At each of these levels, delay has been the rule, not the exception.
Only with the long-term view can the trend toward individual criminal accountability for human-rights violations, the trend I have called the Justice Cascade, be discerned. Writing about the possibility of human-rights prosecutions is his 1991 book, “The Third Wave: Democratization in the late Twentieth Century,” Samuel Huntington said, “In new democratic regimes, justice comes quickly or it does not come at all.” The single most forceful finding of my research is that in that statement Huntington was completely wrong. Justice comes slowly, and in the eyes of the victims, often painfully, unacceptably slowly, but, surprisingly, it often does come.
Domestic courts in Uruguay took 20 years after transition to sentence former authoritarian leaders Juan Maria Bordaberry and Gen. Gregorio Alvarez to 30 and 25 years in prison for ordering the murder of political opponents. The Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodia issued its first conviction last year, over 30 years after the horrors of the killing fields. When the ICTY was first set up in 1993, supporters of justice were deeply skeptical. They pointed out that the tribunal did not have the support of NATO troops to arrest war criminals and would only try the small fish it could stumble across. In his book “Stay the Hand of Vengeance,” Gary Bass wrote that the establishment of the ICTY was an “act of tokenism” by the world community. “The tribunal was built to flounder.” And flounder it did, for quite a while.
Leaders eventually were caught
But eventually the big fish — Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić — were all apprehended, and in the last month, Serb officials handed over the last fugitive wanted by the tribunal, Goran Hadzic. Justice has not come quickly in the Balkans, but eventually, and as a result of the myriad efforts of countless individuals committed to justice, it is coming. Some felt justice was cheated when Milošević died in his cell in The Hague before he could be convicted for his crimes, or when Gen. Pinochet died in Chile before he was convicted in multiple prosecutions for both corruption and human-rights violations. But even without verdicts, other repressors are not comforted when formerly powerful heads of state like Milošević and Pinochet die facing disgrace and almost certain imprisonment.
The most hopeful evidence from my research is that prosecutions actually appear to deter future human-rights violations. A careful statistical analysis of all human-rights prosecutions in transitional countries around the world shows that countries that use such prosecutions are more likely to see improvements in human rights compared to countries that don’t use trials. I believe this means that since human-rights prosecutions increase the perceived likelihood of punishment, they deter potential repressors from killing or torturing their opponents.
The great paradox of the story is that if advocates believe that justice is inevitable, they might feel complacent and end their demands and activity for accountability. But if they stop their pressures, the outcome is more likely to be impunity than justice. So the “advice” I might give to the protesters in Tahrir Square is all the more equivocal. You must know that justice takes time, often too much time, but that it is possible, and even probable. But only if advocates of justice do not tire, nor relent — not only in Egypt, but elsewhere in the world — will accountability be realized.
Kathryn Sikkink is a Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Her latest book, “The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics,” was published by W.W. Norton in August 2011.