University News

Lecturer talks human rights prosecution

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 13, 2012


“Samuel Huntington said ‘Justice comes quickly, or it doesn’t come at all’, and what we’ve discovered is he’s wrong,” said Kathryn Sikkink, a University of Minnesota professor, addressing a packed hall at the Joukowsky Forum in the Watson Institute Monday night to discuss human rights prosecution and her recent book, “The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics.” 

Sikkink discussed the implications of modern human rights prosecutions such as the conviction of criminals long after they commit their crimes. She pointed to Juan Maria Bordaberry, president of Uruguay in the 1970s, who was convicted for his crimes in 2010 as an example.

The case piqued Sikkink’s interest in the area of research that became the topic for her 2011 book, she said. 

As an undergraduate, Sikkink traveled to Uruguay and learned about Bordaberry’s rule from first-hand accounts, she said.

“I had the opportunity to meet many young students, some of whom had been tortured and gone to jail,” she said. “As many of you know, you have conversations over red wine and cigarettes, and you talk about everything.”

But no one talked about holding Bordaberry accountable for his crimes, she said. “We have moved from something being unimaginable in 1976 to a practice that is commonplace in many parts of the world,” a shift that is extremely important, she told The Herald at the reception following the talk. 

“A change has been occurring contrary to the efforts of powerful leaders,” she said. In her talk, Sikkink discussed how countries transitioning to democracies are more likely to be successful if they are “ruptured,” meaning that previous regimes neither control the transition nor forge deals to avoid prosecution.  

Two theories underscore the positive implications of increased human rights prosecutions, she said. The compliance theory states that an increase in enforcement leads to an increase in compliance, and the deterrence theory states that an increase in punishment leads to a decrease in crime, she said.

But the democratization theory suggests trials can destabilize new democracies. “The threat of trials might cause insurgents to be unwilling to come to the peace table,” she said.

Sikkink presented to an audience including many students and several faculty members listening attentively. 

Sikkink will also participate in seminars with faculty members and graduate students and visit an undergraduate course, according to a statement released by Peter Evans, senior fellow in international studies.

Students in the course LAST 1510K: “Human Rights in Twenty-First Century Latin America” read Sikkink’s book in class and will participate in a discussion with her Tuesday, said Annie Sholar ’14, who attended the talk because of the class.

The talk was a “nice synthesis” of Sikkink’s book, she said, adding that she also enjoyed seeing data that had been released since the book was published.

Rafael Contreras ’15 also attended the talk because similar topics were discussed in one of his classes – INTL 1700: “International Law.”

“I thought she had ideas that reflected a lot of the cases we studied in class,” he said, noting that his professor encouraged students to attend the talk because of the implications of human rights prosecutions for the course. 

The 40-minute talk was followed by a question-and-answer session of equal length during which Sikkink defended her ideas.

“It’s very difficult to measure the thought process of the military dictator,” she said in response to a question about how the increase in prosecution affects today’s dictators, noting how her research looks at actual events that happen as a measure of the likelihood of punishment.

When asked whether unfair trials also impact human rights, Sikkink qualified that her data is only based on trials that “have guarantees of minimal due process.”

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