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Trials help alleviate tribulations

According to U research, countries that use human rights trials over time wind up seeing improvements in their overall human rights.

March 3, 2014

For those of us who have spent our lives in the United States, it’s difficult to imagine the reality of citizens living in countries that have been torn apart by leaders ruling with intimidation and repression—and without regard for human rights.

At the University of Minnesota, research led by Kathryn Sikkink has helped to quantify the efforts of “transitional countries”—those moving toward democracy—to improve those human rights.

Sikkink, Regents Professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science, has been a principal investigator for the Transitional Justice Research Collaborative, which from 2010 to 2013 collected and analyzed data about three primary mechanisms for transitional justice: human rights prosecutions, truth commissions, and amnesty laws.

“The [main] finding is that countries that use human rights prosecutions do see improvements in their human rights, especially if they make a persistent use of them—not just for one year or two years, but a cumulative use of prosecutions,” she says.

In this case, “improvements” refer to a quantitative decline in torture, disappearances, summary executions, and political imprisonments.

Even controlling for other factors that contribute to human rights violations, such as the presence of war and varying levels of development and democracy, she says these prosecutions have an independent and statistically significant effect on contributing to improvements in human rights.

“The effect is somewhat greater if the prosecutions result in guilty verdicts,” she adds. “If in that mix you have greater numbers of guilty verdicts, you do tend to see greater improvements.”

The research is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and by two grants from National Science Foundation (NSF). The second NSF grant is enabling the research group to look at and quantify new mechanisms for transitional justice; namely, reparations, vetting, and traditional forms of justice.

Most of the other factors associated with improvements in human rights are very long-term and structural factors, says Sikkink, like a country ending all wars, increasing its wealth, or enhancing its democracy.

“The advantage of these transitional justice mechanisms like a human rights prosecution is that it is something that a state can do, in the short term, that … offers a reasonable and cost-effective way to address human rights violations and to improve your situation,” Sikkink says.

A golden opportunity for students

Another benefit from the second NSF grant is that it has brought University undergraduate students to the research project through the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

One of those is Marie-Christine Ghreichi, a sophomore honors student majoring in history and political science with a minor in French. Ghreichi was thrilled to receive the chance to engage in research so early in her college career.

“It’s a unique opportunity because I get to do this kind of research and be exposed to that academic world with experts in the field,” she says. “There’s mentoring, but they also trust us to do a lot on our own, which is challenging but I think has made me improve a lot as a scholar.”

It also may have steered her toward a career far earlier than she was expecting.

“This experience has definitely shown me that human rights is something worth fighting for and worth pushing,” says Ghreichi. “Those norms can change, and there are many different routes to go about it. This has shown me how and that there are lots of passionate people out there who want to see that change.”

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