The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics

By Gearty, Conor | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, February 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics


Gearty, Conor, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics. By Kathryn Sikkink. W. W. Norton, 384pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9780393079937. Published 15 November 2011

At the London School of Economics a few years ago I listened as Richard Goldstone, then the great guru of the international criminal court, outlined his case for what the author of this stimulating book calls here (only slightly misleadingly) "human rights prosecutions". At the vague level of rhetoric, the argument is simply irresistible: how could one not be thrilled by the ethical panache of a guy who wanted all those brutal dictators locked up? Answering him was a careful scholar, Leslie Vinjamuri, who went into the details of each case where it had been tried, showing (as she believed) that things were not as simple as all that, and that these kinds of trials can often (or perhaps always?) do more harm than good.

So who is right? Kathryn Sikkink has written a book that sets out to supply the details that Goldstone so obviously did not have to hand that night: for her, human rights prosecutions are not only "changing world politics" but are also making the many states undertaking such trials better places in which to live because the very fact of their occurrence reduces the general level of repression. The book is a great read: Sikkink weaves herself into the text in a way that might strike some as a bit Oprah-esque for a scholarly text, but the method certainly produces plenty of interesting stories for the reader to digest while taking a break from the hard political-science bits. Her examination of how the idea of such prosecutions grew from being a new obligation peddled by "norm entrepreneurs" via a "pro-change coalition" into the new common sense of our post-Cold War age is riveting and largely convincing. (Sikkink reports an exchange between Goldstone and Edward Heath that neatly captures the old approach, with the former British prime minister castigating Goldstone's appointment as a prosecutor of war crimes as a "ridiculous job" - and it seems clear that this conversation took place not all that long ago.)

All of this, though, is just skirting around the key challenge, which, as an avowed consequentialist, Sikkink has set herself: do these prosecutions work? The closer you read this book, the more anxious you become that finding data in support of the "justice cascade" is more a laudable effort of will than it is based on clear facts on the ground. …

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