This edited volume is a welcome addition to the literature focusing on human rights, crimes against humanity, and accountability processes. Its contents engage with the purpose and impact of justice and the challenges for overcoming impunity. In the aftermath of mass violence, societies denounce, organize, and struggle for justice. What happens next? Since the Nuremberg trials, over seven decades ago, there have been an array of prosecutions for a variety of atrocious crimes. The prospects of justice, the need to find the truth and set the records straight, the importance of determining guilt and responsibility and sentencing the culprits prompt demands for trials. Wishing for a better world, justice is seen as a prerequisite for peace and as a deterrent of the crimes. Initiatives are often triggered by the belief that “another world is possible”—the motto of the World Social Forum—and needed. However, claims of “Never Again” stumble over the reality of ongoing and endless cycles of violence that keep replicating and multiplying all over the world. At times, it seems that evil has no limits and it’s difficult to imagine what justice can achieve.
Ulrike Capdepón and Rosario Figari-Layús counter this pessimistic view with an excellent compilation of works that seek to answer three research questions: “Do human rights trials make a difference? And if so, of what kind? What factors contribute to making that difference?” (p. 15). In doing so they shed light on what happens when there is justice, as limited as it sometimes may be. Hence, they offer a rebut to deniers and discouragers of justice. The book includes ten chapters addressing post-conflict societies in three regions: Latin America, Africa, and Europe with case studies from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Darfur, Kenya, Germany, Spain, Romania, and the International Criminal Court. Overall, the ambitious task of comparing diverse conflicts, types of violence, countries, and accountability processes succeeds in providing empirical research that confirms the many nuances of human rights prosecutions, the difficulties they encounter, and their impact and effects.
Many are the strengths and contributions of this book. It opens with a prologue by Aleida Assman noting the late 20th century historical shift from impunity to accountability. A comprehensive introduction frames the issues, outlines the parameters for analysis, specifies the focus and content of the case studies, and defines the breadth of the contributions. Its well-elaborated conclusion ties in the empirically grounded findings of the case studies indicating how each of them addresses the research questions. Both introduction and conclusion map well the contents and guide the reader.
In exploring the differences that human rights trials make and what determines them, the editors categorize several factors that either encourage or deter prosecutions and identify key actors in processes leading to justice or perpetuating impunity. These factors, useful tools to analyze comparable situations, consider: the power of victims and human rights organizations in demanding justice; as many studies confirm, their unyielding activism is crucial for advancing prosecutions. This is countered by perpetrators’ power to stop prosecutions, particularly after negotiated transitions that guaranteed amnesties. Governments’ political will to prosecute is essential, as it may require nullifying impunity laws, official apologies and funding. There is the legality of the institutions in charge of the trials, ranging from domestic courts to international bodies as the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. Society’s position regarding the need for justice and their support for the victims and the trials is another factor shaping the process. The passage of time also matters, prosecutions years and decades after the events mean dead and/or aging victims, perpetrators and witnesses. Moreover, the dynamics of these factors and the interactions between them are not static but constantly shifting and evolving, susceptible of being shaped by an array of circumstances—e.g., victims’ power overturning perpetrators’ power.
The individual chapters map a series of scenarios. Authors discuss the potential and limitations of prosecutions, analyze their impact and consequences, recognize what determines positive or negative effects, show that outcomes cannot be guaranteed when initiating prosecutions, and demonstrate the value of late, partial and incomplete justice. Importantly, the case studies share common traits regarding the crimes but highlight the differences of each situation and how political environments, the times when events occurred, and the specifics of the territory shape how processes of accountability unfold. They also illustrate the interactions between domestic and international trials and how the linking of local and global activisms secures support for prosecutions. Hence, authors classify mass human rights violations and multiple legal responses, configuring a patchwork about the complexity of overturning impunity and offering relevant details for identifying and studying situations in other contexts and locations.
Based on the case studies’ findings, the editors identify main outcomes of human rights trials. They point to the official and legal confirmation of the crimes, the victims’ access to justice, and the validation of their narratives. They note their impact on memory construction processes, ranging from challenging narratives of denial to the implementation of memorialization initiatives such as museums, including shaping how events will be remembered. They also warn about what happens when powerful society’s sectors side with perpetrators and defy prosecutions, which translates into a burden for victims and activists that must counter this backlash. These outcomes link with Sikkink’s concept of the “justice cascade,” central to the analytical framework of several case studies that either confirm how this cascade is working or indicate its limitations. What these studies suggest is that “cascades” encounter obstacles, alter their irrepressible paths, and may reduce their strength but keep finding cracks and demonstrating that justice does work.
Pointing to future research, Capdepón and Figari-Layús note the unevenness on how the law is applied in the Global South and the Global North and the lack of studies about the Global North responsibility for human rights crimes. Indeed, it is important to investigate all perpetrators and the role of countries that violently colonized the world. Focusing on the last seven decades, we could start with France’s collaboration with the Vichy regime or the United States employment of major human rights abusers at the service of the anti-communist crusade in the stay-behind armies in Europe after WW2. A comparative analysis investigating in-depth responsibilities and complicities of countries that get away with crimes against humanity would be a relevant project to complement this important work.