My “Human Security” doctoral students just finished reading Kathryn Sikkink‘s new book on international tribunals and it is undisputably their favorite of all those assigned this year. Partly that is because it is written in clear, non-academic prose. Partly it’s the common-sense way in which Sikkink describes her methods and findings, and she ties her story concretely to ongoing policy debates. Partly it’s the way she weaves a portrait of her own intellectual journey into the writing. This book is going to have wide appeal beyond the academy for these reasons, but it was also notably very appealing to doctoral students for the same reasons, as they are hungry for scholarship to which they feel they can relate.
Beyond its appeal to the informed public and as a classroom text, The Justice Cascade makes significant intellectual, theoretical and empirical contributions to human security studies. The title is a little bit misleading since it implies that the story is about the rise of international justice as a norm… and it is, partly. But the real contribution is in demonstrating that trials and truth commissions work, especially in tandem. At least, these mechanisms appear to correlate somewhat to certain favorable outcomes, not least of which is a decline in human rights repression; and notably, in contrast to earlier work by Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri, her analysis shows such mechanisms certainly do no harm.
This finding should not be understated. Many have made similar arguments in the past, but none of the literature was particularly systematic or well-conceived: Sikkink’s own earlier quantitative work on the topic was either region-specific or failed to control for other causal factors. In fact a 2010 overview of the state of the TJ literature by Oskar Thomas, Jim Ron and Roland Paris concluded that it was impossible to know whether TJ worked due to absence of good data, over-reliance on case data, and conceptual incommensurability.
Sikkink’s new book is a redounding riposte to these claims, providing a much more careful systematic treatment of the relationship between trials and truth commissions and the deterrence of human rights abuses than anything I’ve read. She ties together a career’s worth of research on the subject, describing the evolution of the “norm cascade” toward individual state-level accountability for human rights abuses, documenting the effects within Latin America and then replicating these tests on a new global data-set. Throughout, she is careful to discuss the different analytical ways of thinking about “effects” of transitional justice, and she is clear on her coding and the trade-offs in some of her conceptual choices. Other scholars, she acknowledges, have created different data and found different results, but Sikkink’s reaction to that has been to team up with these colleagues on a new project aimed at reconciling the two sets of findings. So she describes her path-breaking conclusions with humility. Her work is a model of normatively-driven, empirically rigorous, policy-relevant social science.
I have only two mild critiques. The first is that I would have loved if the global deterrence chapter had explored differences between types of tribunals. An important policy question animating discussions of how to try Assad, for example, is whether international tribunals have advantages over local courts. It’s not clear to me that Sikkink’s data reflects the kinds of important variation that we see here: in fact my impression (though I’ve not look at the dataset itself) is that she coded only state-level courts. So there are open questions about the role of international institutions and the transnational international justice epistemic community in creating the outcomes she documents. I am hoping some of these more nuanced variables will be reflected in her new work with Leigh Payne.
My other set of questions has to do with the final empirical chapter on US policy post-9/11 and what this means for the “justice cascade.” First, the chapter itself is brilliant for what it is: it’s the best descriptive overview I’ve seen of the rhetorical mechanisms the Bush Administration used to stave off prosecution for its violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the war on terror (or at least, the best overview situated within the IR theory on norms). But the chapter makes an explanatory claim as well – that the efforts of the US to reinterpret international law indicate the strength of the justice cascade, rather than heralding its decline. Here Sikkink’s argument is weaker: it would be fairer to say she has advanced a new and very interesting hypothesis than that she has adequately demonstrated a finding on this point: the chapter includes no counter-factual comparison to earlier US administrations or to the behavior of other states in the same period; and no genuine causal assessment, actually, of whether the US would have behaved differently in the absence of the justice cascade. Plus it largely ducks the other question of whether a superpower’s malfeasance affects the legitimacy of the international norms it’s breaking, or only its own.
Still, both because of its many strengths and because of these small flaws, the book is absolutely ideal for teaching graduate students about how to do systematic, policy-relevant social science and to communicate it to wide audience. We ended by considering whether Sikkink could have written this book in this way straight out of grad school. Probably not: junior political scientists are still safer if they publish a few books with university presses in the style of Activists Beyond Borders before moving on to this more public-intellectual style. But this discussion not only inspired students to think about the justice cascade – it inspired them to visualize themselves at different places in their careers, as scholar-practitioners embedded in the human rights epistemic community, helping build social justice through research.