Kathryn Sikkink headshot

Professor Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at HKS. Sikkink works on international norms and institutions, transnational advocacy networks, the impact of human rights law and policies, and transitional justice. Sikkink has been a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina and a Guggenheim fellow. She is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations. We sat down with Professor Sikkink to learn more about the practice of transitional justice and how it can help populations coming to terms with atrocities as they seek justice and accountability.

Can you explain what transitional justice is and what its practice seeks to accomplish?

{ KS } The “transition” in transitional justice looks at how countries make a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, or from war to peace, or both. We have countries like Argentina that, historically, made the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. We have countries like Colombia that have made a transition from war to peace, mainly through peace agreements. Since Colombia was already democratic, the transition wasn’t from authoritarianism to democracy, but from war to peace. And then we have countries like Guatemala that simultaneously make a transition from civil war to peace and from authoritarianism to democracy.

The justice portion of transitional justice looks at how accounts for the past are going to be rendered, and how crimes and violence that happened during the war or the authoritarian regime will be handled. There are many ways of grappling with the past and coming to terms with it, and that’s what we’re mainly looking at in this project. One of the most common methods have been truth commissions, so in this project we’re coding all the truth commissions in the world. Another method is the role of human rights prosecutions—and that has become the centerpiece of our project, because very high-profile people are being criminally tried, prosecuted, and imprisoned; sometimes these individuals are former leaders of countries, and they are being held criminally accountable and sent to prison. 

There are also amnesty laws where certain crimes or certain individuals are protected from being held accountable, so we code that as well, because it interacts with other forms of transitional justice. Lastly, there are also reparations policies where people who have been harmed are given some sort of reparation. It may be monetary reparations, but it may also be restitution of land or jobs, or it may be rehabilitation that provides medical or psychological assistance to people who have been harmed.

“When you do these large-scale studies, you find that there’s not a single voice of the victims, except for the fact that victims do want to be listened to. There’s a lot of complexity in victim attitudes.”

Can you describe what a truth commission does and what it often seeks to accomplish?

{ KS } Truth commissions work with the basic notion that history may repeat itself if the truth is not told. The very process of gathering victim testimony or gathering material from archives and producing a report that lays out what happened has the power to change the path a country’s on, so it won’t return to that kind of violence in the future. Truth commissions can be very important for victims, whose voices can sometimes be silenced in these transitions. These commissions take vital testimony that allows those voices to be heard. But some truth commissions rely a lot on archives. I was just in Portugal talking about a truth commission that existed there from 1977 to 1991, but it has never been coded before.

The reason it had been left off the list of truth commissions despite being a state-sponsored truth commission is that it wasn’t taking victim testimonies. Yet, it was given entire access to all archives of the Portuguese State and used those sources to publish a series of volumes—but it didn’t write about torture, because torture was not being documented in the archives. So, there are strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of sources, which is why a good Truth commission will draw from multiple sources—victim testimony, archives, and sometimes estimates of the number of people who were killed or imprisoned. That last source can be very controversial, but very important to know exactly what we’re talking about when it comes to documenting history.

What questions about transitional justice do you hope to answer through the grant research?

{ KS } What’s unique about this project is that it has two parts. In the first part, we are coding these transitional justice indicators, which gives us a macro-level data about a truth commission, what it looks like, and if it has a reparations policy. Once we have that data, we can do a qualitative and quantitative analysis that asks: what difference does the truth commission make? Are countries that have truth commissions less likely to see history repeat itself? Many people may assume that truth commissions will ensure that we don’t return to these practices, but we don’t know if that’s actually the case from the social science point of view. So, this project seeks to answer those kinds of questions.

The second part involves two of our PIs, Phuong Pham and Patrick Vinck, who are experts in performing survey research with victims in conflict zones and learning about their attitudes, their beliefs, their needs, and their desires on justice. This is important, because very often it’s governments and international organizations that design these policies, without consulting the victims. Sometimes these groups speak on behalf of the victims, claiming that victims have said they want certain forms of justice, but in reality, not consulting the victims in a comprehensive fashion. Instead, Patrick and Phuong are performing random large-scale scientific surveys of victims so we can get a comprehensive and representative sample of victims and what they say regarding their desires for transitional justice.


Phuong Pham and Patrick Vinck
Two of team's principal investigators, Phuong Pham and Patrick Vinck

When surveyed, what do victims say they would like to see in terms of justice, perhaps that governments or international organizations are not acknowledging?

{ KS } When you do these large-scale studies, you find that there’s not a single voice of the victims, except for the fact that victims do want to be listened to. There’s a lot of complexity in victim attitudes. In Colombia, our survey found that victims want peace, and they also want justice. Often, the victims’ views are presented in dichotomous ways: “Victims want peace, not justice.” While they may want peace first, they do then want justice. The dilemma is that the victims’ losses often cannot be replaced, especially if they lost a family member or loved one. Any amount of reparations will not change that, but the victims still want and need reparations for various reasons—maybe because losing a family member means they need economic assistance or psychosocial assistance.

We found that victims are appreciative of and need reparations, even as they critique those reparations. We have found, in cases like Colombia, that victims have more trust in government following reparations, as it seems to them like an indicator that the government cares about them. A reparations program may be important simply as a symbol to show that the government is thinking about the needs of the victims and delivering some sort of reparations to them. On the other hand, they may be dissatisfied that it doesn’t come fast enough, it doesn’t provide enough money, or it doesn’t satisfy all their needs—so there are a lot of critiques, as well.

Who is the audience that you hope to influence with the results of the research performed by the Transitional Justice program?

{ KS } Our funding is provided by a grant from the Canadian government—specifically Global Affairs Canada and the Peace Operations Office—and our guidance is not just to code data and produce research, but to share our research with policy audiences. With that, they want us to share our findings with governments, international organizations, and civil society groups. We initially thought that we would start doing that in Year 3, when we had most of our research and data collection done, but we’ve already had a series of meetings just one year into the program with different policymakers who have sought us out to already begin sharing some of our findings. We’ll use these meetings and our own data collection and analysis to create publications and hopefully influence academic debates as well, but right now we are focused on updating our data by the end of 2022.

When thinking about sharing the recommendations that your findings ultimately suggest, do you anticipate facing any challenges with governments not being interested in transitional justice, or potentially interested but without the capacity for it?

{ KS } Yes, not all countries in the world making a transition use even one transitional justice mechanism. That ends up being one thing that gives us leverage for our research: when we look at the effectiveness of transitional justice, we compare the countries that have used it to the countries that haven’t used it. We can say with confidence from our research that countries that have used trials and domestic human rights prosecutions are more likely to see improvements in human rights than those countries that have not used such prosecutions. We do hope that those research findings, if they enter a policy community or academic literature, would encourage people who believe in transitional justice to advocate for prosecutions.

The early discussion and conceptualization of both truth commissions and prosecutions were ambivalent, and originally it was thought that prosecutions were dangerous and could lead to coups, that they could make things worse rather than making things better. So, we do feel that our research has helped to lay a few of these worries to rest. It’s certainly not easy to prosecute, and prosecutions are not always successful, but you shouldn’t fear that prosecutions will make things worse—we haven’t found any evidence of that as a generalizable phenomenon. I’m not saying that there’s not an individual country where that may have happened, but I am saying that we don’t find it as a more general phenomenon.

World map of case study locations, including Cambodia, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, Iraq, Mali, Sri Lanka, Haiti, and MyanmarWorld map of case study locations, including Cambodia, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iraq, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine.

What do you see as the role of the Carr Center within Harvard and the broader human rights movement?

{ KS } I think the Transitional Justice program is a good illustration of the work that the Carr Center can do: We are a research community that not only performs research but is committed to outreach and ensuring that our knowledge gets in the hands of people who are engaged in policymaking. I think this is just an emblematic example of the kind of work the Carr Center has done over many years of performing scholarly research, including creating new data sets and scholarly research and writing, while at the same time also performing outreach to make sure its findings don’t just appear in a scholarly journal but become known by the policy world. The Carr Center has also excelled at professional development. Our Transitional Justice Fellows are a good example of that: We have young scholars and staff members who are with us and who are all committed to their professional development and the idea that they should grow as scholars and researchers through their involvement with our program. In the past year, I’ve seen this group of young people that we’re working with really develop professionally through the work.