Human Rights Prosecutions and Autocratic Survival

Human Rights Prosecutions and Autocratic Survival

Do human rights prosecutions deter dictatorships from relinquishing power? Advances in the
study of human rights show that prosecutions reduce repression in transition countries. However,
prosecuting officials for past crimes may jeopardize the prospects of regime change in countries
that have not transitioned, namely dictatorships. The creation of the International Criminal
Court has further revitalized this debate. This paper assesses how human rights prosecutions
influence autocratic regime change in neighboring dictatorships. We argue that when a dictator
and his elite supporters can preserve their interests after a regime transition, human rights
prosecutions are less likely to deter them from leaving power. Using personalist dictatorship as
a proxy for weak institutional guarantees of post-transition power, the evidence indicates that
these regimes are less likely to democratize when their neighbors prosecute human rights abusers.
In other dictatorships, however, neighbor prosecutions do not deter regimes from democratizing.