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After Oppression

Transitional Justice in Latin America and Eastern Europe

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The decline of authoritarianism in Latin America and Eastern Europe marked the end of a dark chapter in the history of these societies. In both regions, transition to democracy was accompanied by distinct efforts to come to terms with the traumatic experiences of the past and to demand accountability from the oppressors. The impact of these efforts rippled far beyond national boundaries, expanding the frontiers of international justice, and yielding indelible lessons and inspiration.

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Models of accountability and the effectiveness of transitional justice

The dramatic new trend in world politics towards holding state officials accountable for past human rights violations cannot be properly understood or evaluated by looking primarily at domestic political processes in individual countries. For this reason, broad comparative projects of the kind envisioned by this volume are a useful exercise. The trend towards accountability in world politics is taking place simultaneously in international and regional institutions and courts, in foreign courts, and mainly in the domestic policies and courts of the country where the human rights violation occurred. I argue that international, foreign and domestic human rights trials are all part of an interrelated trend in world politics towards greater accountability – a trend that Ellen Lutz and I have called the Justice Cascade (Lutz and Sikkink, 2001). It is one form of what Cass Sunstein (1997: 36–38) has called a “norm bandwagon”, which occurs when “the lowered cost of expressing new norms encourages an ever increasing number of people to reject previously popular norms, to a ‘tipping point’ where it is adherence to the old norms that produces social disapproval”. The Justice Cascade is a rapid and dramatic shift in the legitimacy of the norms of individual accountability for human rights violations, and an increase in actions (such as trials) on behalf of those norms. It does not mean that true justice is done – far from it – just that there is a new legitimacy of the norm, as evidenced by the frequency of actions on its behalf. We know we are dealing with cascade or diffusion phenomena when government decisions in one country are “systematically conditioned by prior policy choices” made elsewhere in the world (Simmons et al., 2006: 787). Choices about transitional justice are indeed systematically conditioned by prior policy choices, but ‘diffusion’ is all too passive a word to convey the concerted activity and struggle through which ideas about justice have moved around the globe. The focus of this chapter will be on human rights trials, but some of the arguments, particularly those about effectiveness, are relevant to a wide range of transitional justice issues.

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