Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, has an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Making Tyrants Do Time that should be of interest to those following events in El Salvador and Guatemala. In it, she speaks directly to concerns that have been voiced about the potential destabilizing effects of prosecuting individuals for war crimes and crimes against humanity in postwar societies.
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.
By comparing countries like Argentina and Chile that have used human rights prosecutions with those like Brazil that have not, I found that prosecutions tended not to exacerbate human rights violations, undermine democracy or lead to violence.
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.
Such evidence doesn’t tell us what will happen in any individual country, but it is a better basis from which to reason than a counterfactual guess. The possibility of punishment and disgrace makes violating human rights more costly, and thus deters future leaders from doing so.If political leaders in Central America want to improve the human rights situations in the region, the historical record indicates that Guatemala should continue with prosecutions and El Salvador should start them. Prosecuting former government officials for human rights violations is more likely to strengthen democracy than it is to destabilize it.