A cogent, thorough historical study of the gathering global momentum in holding state officials accountable for human-rights abuses, from Nuremberg to Guantánamo.
The trend toward human-rights activism throughout the 20th century, galvanized especially around opposition to the repressive military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, has created what Sikkink (Political Science/Univ. of Minnesota) views as a deeply hopeful “justice cascade.” Oriented in her research toward Latin America, the author concentrates mainly on the emergent groups that exposed abuses in those countries, which in turn empowered others to create “truth commissions” in the wake of violent official abuses, such as South Africa and the former Yugoslavia. Despite the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II, which put in place the model for state accountability, the enforcement of human-rights abuses lost steam mainly because the criminal leaders themselves still claimed immunity. In Greece and Portugal by the mid ’70s, however, domestic courts held unprecedented trials of military personnel for crimes committed during their previous military dictatorships—unlike in Spain, where the passage of time and the Amnesty Law of 1977 blocked persecution of abuses perpetrated during General Franco’s four-decade dictatorship. Human-rights organizations in support of the “disappeared” of Argentina ensured that Raúl Alfonsín’s democratic government held trials—in turn setting off an outcry for accountability in neighboring Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia, making possible the extradition arrest of General Pinochet in 1998 and paving the way for the creation of the International Criminal Court and other important checks. Sikkink structures her fairly academic but highly readable study in three parts: the emergence of the zeitgeist, spurred by the American opposition to the Vietnam War in the late ’60s; the diffusion of the ideas of accountability; and the impact of deterring world leaders from criminal activity—e.g., Bush administration officials being held accountable for torture cases at secret detention centers.
A distinguished work involving a significant marshalling of statistics and evidence that signals enormous hope for humanity in the coming century.