Dissertation & Book Project

Violence, Justice, and Reconciliation:
The Politics of Transitional Justice in Societies Recovering from War

Committee: Beatriz Magaloni (Chair), David Laitin, Lisa Blaydes

Serious human rights violations committed during civil war erode the political and social fabric in brutal, decisive ways. In addition to the physical violence and tremendous emotional trauma, they also fundamentally change the way in which citizens view their state -- the very entity whose existence is premised on protecting and securing the safety of its citizens. My dissertation explores how post-conflict governments respond to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights violations committed during internal armed conflict. Why do some governments aggressively punish perpetrators of gross human rights abuse, while others embrace a policy of forgiveness, truth-seeking, or something in between? Moreover, what impact do these different policy choices have on the relationship between the state and its citizens?

I marshal various types of data and methods to address these puzzles. I combine game theory, econometric techniques, and case studies from Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to explain strategic uses of transitional justice. Further, experimental evidence from Central America casts light on the long-lasting consequences of initial policy choices on the political attitudes of citizens affected by internal armed conflict. 

The Arguments in Brief

Part I, "From Violence to Justice," is dedicated to explaining differences in the choice of transitional justice policy across countries and time. My main argument is that a post-conflict country’s trajectory of transitional justice is the outcome of a power struggle among domestic elites at the time of transition. Strong victors of conflict choose to weaponize domestic courts and legislation to eliminate their former (and potential future) political rivals. Complicit elites who are moderately weak, facing a more competitive political environment, play a defensive strategy instead. They adopt a mix of lenient policies including amnesties, which shield both themselves and the opposition from criminal prosecution. I argue that the strategy acts as insurance against retaliatory punishment, should the elites find themselves in the opposition tomorrow. In these chapters, I develop and test the theory with formal theory, case studies from Sub-Saharan Africa, and a battery of quantitative tests using an original global dataset of transitional justice policies spanning four decades. I further draw on the Latin American experience to demonstrate how my theoretical framework can also be applied to cases of “delayed justice,” in which transitional justice is implemented many years after the formal end to conflict.

Part II, "From Justice to Reconciliation," turns to a second set of puzzles about the impact of transitional justice. Popular and journalistic accounts frequently tout the ability of transitional justice to achieve "reconciliation," yet this relationship is typically treated as a black box. In what ways do transitional justice efforts influence political trust and perceptions of state legitimacy? Perhaps more importantly, how efficacious are different policies in (re)building a relationship of trust between state and citizen? My answers are premised on the idea that transitional justice policies vary in the extent to which they can signal a government’s commitment to address past human rights abuse. I argue that this depends in part on the substantive characteristics of a given policy, but also on the way the policy is pitched to the public -- a process I call "reason-giving." With experimental data from Guatemala and El Salvador, I show that justifying a policy in terms of the normative claims of victims is significantly more effective at improving perceptions of government trustworthiness and legitimacy, compared to making appeals to procedural fairness. These effects hold regardless of policy type, although in general, domestic trials and reparations programs are more efficacious than truth-seeking efforts at eliciting political trust.

Selected Papers

"Justice as Fairness? Human Rights Prosecutions and Legitimacy in Central America" (2017). Working paper.

Under what conditions do human rights prosecutions affect government legitimacy? Human rights trials in domestic courts are often touted as a source of legitimacy and citizen confidence in state institutions. Yet few studies empirically test this relationship at the sub-national level. Using a series of large-scale survey experiments from post-conflict Guatemala and El Salvador, this study tests how underlying attitudes about justice moderate the impact of human rights prosecutions on perceptions of government. Subjects are randomly assigned court case vignettes which vary in the fairness of process (procedural justice) and severity of punishment (retributive justice), and rate the legitimacy of government bodies as well as satisfaction with case outcomes. As criminal trials of human rights violators take root across Latin America, this study contributes new micro-level evidence on the impact of such trials on legitimacy and trust-building.

"From Political Violence to Political Trust? Experimental Evidence from Guatemala" (2016). [Read paper]

Can transitional justice policies increase citizen confidence in the state? Using a survey-in-the-field experiment in Guatemala, I compare how three commonly deployed transitional justice policies – criminal trials, truth commissions, and reparations – affect attitudes toward the state in a post-conflict context. Using data from a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Guatemalans from across 100 municipalities, I find that truth commissions are much less effective at restoring citizen trust in the state when compared to either trials or reparations. This is in contrast to popular and journalistic claims which tout the truth-seeking function of these commissions. Further, I find that restorative justice arguments, which emphasize the normative claims of victims, are significantly more effective at increasing confidence in state institutions than procedural justice arguments, which focus on correctness of process. None of the treatments tested increased trust between citizens. These findings speak to both the opportunities and critical limitations of transitional justice policies.

"Texting and Sexual Health: Experimental Evidence from an Information Intervention in Kenya" (2015).  Information & Communications Technologies and Development Conference Proceedings, 18. [Read paper]

While text-messaging is an efficacious method of disseminating health information in developing contexts, we know less about how users adapt their behavior based on that information. Does it matter how the information is conveyed? This paper presents findings from a randomized field experiment that evaluates the impact of a Short Message Service (SMS) sexual health counseling service on individuals’ knowledge and behavior in an urban informal settlement of Nairobi, Kenya. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions which test different causal mechanisms through which technology-enabled information provision could work to alter sexual behavior: (1) information gap reduction, (2) personalization, and (3) social cues. The evidence suggests that personalizing the information and providing signals about how other people in the community are behaving can dramatically minimize sexual health risk, compared to simply reducing the information gap. Additionally, individuals receiving generic, non-personalized health information were more likely to engage in risky behavior compared to their counterparts.