Deterrence and Impunity: Insights from Human Rights Prosecutions for an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC)

Kathryn Sikkink

Last week, I attended an invigorating workshop on the need for an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC), organized by the American Academy of Arts and Science (AAAS), under the leadership of Robert Rotberg and Judge Mark Wolf.   Some of the leading international figures who were involved in the campaign for the 1997 Landmines Convention and for an International Criminal Court (ICC) are now advancing the proposal for an IACC, including Gareth Evans, the former Foreign Minister of Australia; Lloyd Axworthy, the former Foreign Minister of Canada; and Richard Goldstone, the former Prosecutor of the ICTY.  The current governments of Canada and the Netherlands are also now promoting the proposal for an IACC. The UN Convention Against Corruption, which entered into force in 2005 and has 189 state parties, is a legally binding universal anti-corruption instrument, but it lacks sufficient enforcement mechanisms.  The IACC would help enforce the Convention by serving as a court of last resort to prosecute serious instances of corruption when state parties are unable or unwilling to do so.

Although I am not an expert on an anti-corruption court or corruption per se, I support this initiative for an IACC because of my work on a parallel related issue – the rise and effectiveness of individual criminal accountability for mass atrocity.  In both cases of mass atrocity and grand corruption, greater legal accountability appears to be one necessary piece of a solution to the problem.  Individual criminal accountability for mass atrocity and for grand corruption are linked because both have been characterized by the impunity of powerful people from accountability for wrongdoing.  Legal, social, and political impunity emboldens the powerful to persist in a wide range of harmful behavior, perpetuating violence, inequality, and poverty, and undermining public trust. 

The key to solving these related problems is finding a way to break the vicious cycle of impunity.  Impunity’s antonym is accountability.  Accountability mechanisms permit those affected by the actions of the powerful to demand that they explain their actions and be sanctioned if what they do is illegal.   Both hard accountability, such as trials, and soft accountability, including transparency efforts and peer and public reputational pressures, can be useful. Multiple accountability mechanisms are necessary to address different kinds of impunity issues, and to reinforce one another.  Our research shows that domestic human rights prosecutions are associated with a decline in core human rights violations, but they have been usefully accompanied by truth telling and reparations policies that provide alternative forms of accountability.  International tribunals are important backstops, but strengthening domestic accountability institutions is necessary to provide long-term sustainable gains.  An effective anti-corruption policy involves strengthening the domestic capacity for prosecuting officials for corruption and tax evasion, greater transparency, and the adoption of an anti-money laundering framework.  An IACC would be similar to the ICC in that it would be a court of last resort with a doctrine of complementarity, so that states would have the opportunity to handle corruption cases first in domestic courts.


Our research, first with the Transitional Justice Research Collaborative (TJRC) supported by the National Science Foundation, and now the Transitional Justice Evaluation Team (TJET) supported by Global Affairs Canada, collects data about human rights prosecutions and uses the resulting data sets to test the hypothesis that increases in criminal accountability can lead to human rights improvement, meaning fewer instances of human rights violations like torture, summary execution, disappearances, and political imprisonment.  I have been doing this work now for about 15 years.  My early publications on the issue, such as my 2010 article with Hun Joon Kim in International Studies Quarterly, “Explaining the Deterrence Effect of Human Rights Prosecutions for Transitional Countries,” and my 2011 book The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics [1] found that prosecutions were associated with improvements in human rights.  We hypothesized that this could be explained by a combination of socialization and deterrence.  Since that time, I have continued to be part of teams of researchers, including Geoff Dancy and Leigh Payne, supported by two large grants from the NSF/Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), that performed more thorough and sophisticated data collection and analysis. One summary of this research is presented in our 2019 joint article, “Behind Bars and Bargains: New Findings on Transitional Justice in Emerging Democracies” in International Studies Quarterly.[2]  In this article, and others published by members of the team, the one constant we always find in our analysis is the association of human rights prosecutions with a decline in core human rights violations. 

There is also some support for the deterrence hypothesis from other scholars working on international tribunals. Hyeran Jo and Beth Simmons (2016) show that the ICC is associated with a decline in civilian deaths in war. They also find evidence in support of their theory that the ICC deters state and rebel actors from killing civilians through two types of deterrence: prosecutorial (potential perpetrators are deterred through fear of legal punishment) and social (potential perpetrators are deterred through fear of the informal social consequences of norm-breaking).

Similar discussions regarding the potential correlation between the legal and social accountability associated with an international court and a decline in the incidence of grand corruption led to the IACC proposal.  Klitgaard (2016), for example, argues that the lack of accountability is one of the basic causes of corruption. The International Monetary Fund (2016) agrees that “a credible threat of criminal prosecution of public officials who engage in corrupt acts and confiscation of their ill-gotten assets can serve as a powerful deterrent” to corruption.  But in many countries that experience corruption, the judicial sector itself and the police themselves are corrupt.  In those circumstances, an international court of last resort like an IACC could step in when countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute domestically.  But there is less evidence of the association between prosecutions and improvements in corruption levels, and these findings continue to be contested. Matthew Stephenson (2016) argues, for example, that while accountability sometimes leads to less corruption, too much (or the wrong kind of) accountability can make the corruption problem worse.  The academic debate underscores why there is a great need for more research about the link between accountability and corruption. 

As the norm entrepreneurs like Judge Wolf, Justice Goldstein, and Gareth Evans move ahead with their proposal for an IACC, with the support of the governments of Canada and the Netherlands, they will continue to face these questions about effectiveness.  Scholars can contribute to these efforts by exploring the impact of legal accountability for corruption on the changing levels of corruption in countries.  Scholars will encounter numerous difficulties, including the problems with the quality of corruption data, but such research would be yet another valuable tool in the debates over the need for an IACC.

[1] Published by W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), and translated into Spanish as: La cascada de la justicia: Cómo los juicios de lesa humanidad están cambiando el mundo de la política, (Buenos Aires, Argentina and Barcelona Spain: Gedisa Editores, 2013 and 2016).

[2] Geoff Dancy, Bridget Marchesi, Tricia Olsen, Leigh Payne, Andrew Reiter, and Kathryn Sikkink,

“Behind Bars and Bargains: New Findings on Transitional Justice in Emerging Democracies” in International Studies Quarterly Vol. 63(1) (Spring 2019): 99-110.