Human rights prosecutions change world politics, says Kathryn Sikkink, 2012 Robert Kennedy Book Award winner


Kathryn Sikkink, University of Minnesota Regents Professor and Human Rights Program Advisory Board Chair was awarded the 2012 Robert Kennedy Book Award by Ethel Kennedy on May 24 at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, DC for her work, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Changed World Politics.

This award, given by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights,  honors books that most reflect Robert Kennedy’s priorities of concern for the powerless, even-handed justice, giving youth fair opportunities, and providing a free democratic society to close the gaps of power and opportunity.

Sikkink’s book largely focuses on how international states have evolved  to systematically violate human rights which has led to the “justice cascade” where  activists  are working to shift norms and ideas of holding political leaders criminally accountable for the violations.

John Seigenthaler, Selection Panel Chair remarked on why Sikkink received the award over 90 other nominees. “Sikkink…has provided readers with compelling evidence that the cause of human rights finally is taking hold in the international community. She documents a trend clearly demonstrating that tyrannical dictators who, in the past, murdered, brutalized, and imprisoned citizen-dissidents and political opponents with impunity, now more frequently face criminal prosecutions and punishment. The result: Justice, once routinely vagrant and still often delayed now finds both traction and viability.”  

 In receiving this award, Sikkink joins previous distinguished Robert Kennedy Book Award winners including Vice President Al Gore, Congressmember John Lewis, Taylor Branch, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Kozol, and Michael Lewis.

 What first motivated/prompted you to write The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Changed World Politics?

“I had been conducting research on human rights trials around the world for many years, yet I realized that many readers in the United States, both academics and the general public, were not aware of the sweeping changes appearing in the world with regard to accountability for past human rights violations.  I wrote the book to share stories and the results of decades of research with both scholars and the general public.”

What was the greatest thing you learned through writing this book?

 “The most striking fact that stands out in all the research for this book is that although demands for justice have been remarkably resilient, it has not been easy for any country in the world to confront its past.  Almost all leaders, when faced with the dilemmas of accountability, have wanted to turn the page and look toward the future, not the past.  Even in countries like Greece and Argentina, where there were strong popular demands for accountability, leaders faced agonizing choices that they feared could lead to military coups.  As the United States confronts the legacies of Bush administration human rights violations, it helps to remember that countries with far weaker political and judicial systems have nevertheless held their leaders accountable.” 

How long did it take you to write the book/ What was the journey or writing process like?

 “In one sense, I started doing the “research” for the book over 30 years ago, when I arrived as an undergraduate exchange student in Uruguay.  Later, I continued my informal research of the book when I lived a full year in Argentina in 1985, during the famous trials of the military juntas for human rights violations.  The actual writing of the material that later became the book started in 2001, when I published my first article on the topic with my friend and colleague Ellen Lutz, where we first used the title the Justice Cascade. I conducted additional research when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina in 2002. I worked on the actual writing on this book for the last six years, and I had the great benefit of receiving a John Simon Guggenheim award to complete the final stage of the writing.” 

If someone were to read this book, what would you hope they took away from its pages?

“The most important finding is that human rights 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 would like my readers to realize that human rights prosecutions can be one relatively inexpensive way to deter potential repressors from killing or torturing their opponents in the future.”

In your own words, what do think set your book a part from the 90 other books nominated for this award?

 “I combine history and stories of real people struggling to bring about change in the world, with both comparative and statistical research on the impact of human rights trials. I tried to write the book for the general reader, but in a way that conveys important research findings.  This is unusual, since most academics write mainly for other academics, not for the general public.”