IN 1976, KATHRYN SIKKINK traveled from Minnesota to study as an exchange student at the University of Montevideo. She was seeking an immersion experience, not a group program with other Americans; plus, a scholarship was included. Three years earlier, Uruguay had experienced a transition from democracy to a harsh dictatorship. It was the darkest possible time to live in a country labeled the “torture chamber of Latin America.” Sikkink’s fellow students shut windows and doors before playing protest music for her at the lowest possible volume. She made friends with young people who had been imprisoned and tortured for their political beliefs.

Sikkink was 20 years old at the time. “It was a transformative experience that made me forever concerned about what you might call the human rights puzzle,” she says.

Uruguay was the human rights puzzle in a nutshell. A democratic country for much of the 20th century—until a military coup in 1973—it had enjoyed healthy social programs and a largely middle-class, well-educated population. How could it have descended into a brutal dictatorship?

Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy who is based at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, has devoted her career to addressing that question and the one that follows from it: How can human rights abuses be prevented? Over the past 40 years, she has tracked an evolving, relatively new norm she calls the “justice cascade,” which has increased accountability for human rights offenders, a recent example being the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. In the process, her work has contributed to growing awareness of a global reality that makes the possibility of justice a potential deterrent to future abuses.

ST. CLOUD, MINNESOTA, might not seem like the most obvious starting place for such a far-reaching, international agenda. But Sikkink was exposed at an early age to her parents’ engagement with politics and the world of ideas. Her father, a speech and communications professor at the local college, encouraged debate. “If you could make a good argument, you could sometimes get what you wanted,” she recalls. “That was illuminating to me.”

Sikkink majored in international relations at the University of Minnesota and after spending her junior year in Montevideo, she traveled to Tanzania to conduct field research for a senior honors thesis on the country’s economic diversification efforts under the International Coffee Agreement. “At a certain point my advisor said, ‘Why don’t you just stay home and get your degree?’ But I wanted to learn about the whole world, and I felt I needed to go to Africa because I hadn’t been there yet.”

Sikkink’s first post-college job was a human rights internship at the Washington Office on Latin America, funded by the Ford Foundation. “My salary was $7,000 a year,” she recalls. “I thought this was a fabulous thing, and it was.” Her duties included helping visitors from human rights groups navigate the policy world in Washington; at one point she accompanied and translated for Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentine human rights activist and winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, during his visit to DC. The job was interesting and exciting, but Sikkink had an important realization along the way: “I wasn’t cut out to be an activist,” she says. “As much as I believed in the ideas and the work, I didn’t like lobbying. Instead, I always wanted to do more research.”

That insight led Sikkink to the PhD program at Columbia University, where she straddled the fields of global and comparative politics, studying the impact of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America on policymaking in Argentina and Brazil. Later she was asked to contribute her expertise on human rights questions in Latin America to a volume on international politics and two-level game theory co-edited by Harvard’s Robert Putnam. “I had been working on the connections between international institutions and domestic polities, so it was fantastic to link that with my longtime interest in human rights,” she recalls. “Everything gelled. I never looked back.”

Before joining the faculty of the University of Minnesota, in 1988, Sikkink conducted fieldwork in Brazil and Argentina. Sitting in on the “Trial of the Juntas” in Buenos Aires in 1985, she witnessed one of the first human rights prosecutions since the Nuremberg Trials and the first such procedure in Latin America by a democratic government against a former dictatorship of the same country. It was the beginning of a shift toward accountability that Sikkink would be among the first to notice, document, and measure, clearing the path for future prosecutions.

Given the history of abuses and genocide in the past 50 years alone, human rights would appear to be a grim field of study. Yet in her most recent book, The Justice Cascade (2011), Sikkink presents a research finding that might seem counterintuitive, the gist of which is: The world is not going to hell in a hand basket. In fact, the increasing prosecution of human rights violations has created a new norm that recognizes and reinforces the idea that individuals who commit offenses such as summary execution, torture, and disappearance can be tried in a court of law. Countries where human rights violations are prosecuted, whether by domestic or international courts, see an improvement in human rights practices as measured by a composite scale derived from Amnesty International and State Department annual reports. And neighboring countries are positively influenced as well.

It’s easy to forget in today’s world of headline-grabbing truth commissions and high-profile international trials that awareness and accountability weren’t always the norm. As Sikkink points out, relatively recent dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier, and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner lived in exile without fear of prosecution after their regimes ended. That changed in 1998, when Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London under a Spanish extradition request for his role in torturing and killing political opponents during his 17-year rule. Pinochet’s arrest marked a turning point. It was one of the first times a country claimed jurisdiction over a non-native. Suddenly, if you were a former dictator, it seemed possible that the whole world really was watching.

“Some people think I’m optimistic about the future of human rights because I’ve done so much work in Latin America,” Sikkink says, noting that the region was in the vanguard of prosecution for human rights violations. More recently, however, African and Asian countries are seeing a gradual increase in prosecutions. (The Middle East still lags, although protesters during the Arab Spring were quick to demand accountability for leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.)

Data backs this optimism. Sitting at her computer, Sikkink scrolls through screen after screen of accumulated data on justice mechanisms used by countries around the world that she and others have gathered for the Transitional Justice Research Collaborative, with the support of the National Science Foundation. “The human rights puzzle is amenable to research,” she says, stopping periodically to click on and expand the details of a particular case. Optimistic realism—backed by data analysis and years of field interviews with victims, government officials, and human rights workers—probably best describes her outlook. “Truth commissions, reparations policies, prosecutions, removing complicit officials—these are all ways countries around the world are trying to create nunca más—never again.”

In her next book, to be published by Princeton University Press, Sikkink will let the numbers speak once again to take on the darker viewpoint of those who would argue that human rights are in decline. International institutions are ineffective in a multipolar world, they contend—even the United States has used torture to interrogate terrorism suspects.

It’s not that she believes justice is being done everywhere in the world, Sikkink emphasizes, although her use of the word “cascade” is sometimes interpreted that way. A chapter in The Justice Cascade addresses human rights abuses by the U.S. government after 9/11 and the legal workarounds implemented by the Bush administration to avoid prosecution. And an ongoing project at the Carr Center is reframing the frequently politicized debate on torture as a terrorism deterrent by analyzing the long-term consequences of that policy on terrorist recruitment and U.S. alliances.

These efforts at objective measurement keep the focus on policy and results, a key factor for sustaining hope in the ultimate source of human rights progress: people. But that can be complicated. Take what Sikkink refers to as the “information paradox.” Activists create awareness of what human rights violations look like, leading to more reporting by victims. That’s the whole point, of course—but on paper, the uptick looks like a step back, making it seem as if things are actually getting worse.

“Do we believe there is more rape in wartime than ever before?” Sikkink asks. “Actually, no—the human rights movement has created an awareness of something that was previously underreported.” Those statistics can muddy the waters for effective policy creation, however, and discourage workers who already field multiple accounts of abuse on a daily basis. “It’s important to remind people in the human rights movement that they helped create the very data being used to evaluate their effectiveness,” she adds. “They’ve named things that were not considered crimes before.”

The decades Sikkink has spent in the field of human rights provide that kind of perspective. During her time at the University of Minnesota, she raised two sons with her husband, Douglas Johnson, former executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture. Johnson, now director of the Carr Center, arrived at the Kennedy School in the fall of 2013; Sikkink followed in early 2014 with a joint appointment as Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. The couple has team-taught Theory and Practice of Human Rights; Sikkink has also led a January offering with Luis Morena Ocampo, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Even so, the human rights puzzle that so engaged Sikkink at the beginning of her career has yet to be solved. There is no definitive answer, for example, to how Uruguay could move from a progressive society to a dictatorship to one of the most liberal governments in Latin America over just a few decades, although certain elements have been isolated as contributing factors. As a 20-year-old, Sikkink interviewed staff members at Uruguay’s U.S. embassy and found only one person who thought human rights had a role to play in policy. Today, things are different. “We’ve gone from a point where human rights wasn’t really part of our strategy to asking ourselves if we’re doing enough in Syria,” she comments. “That is a complete shift.” Sikkink has witnessed—and contributed to—enough change to understand the significance of that transformation.

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.