The Justice Dilemma: International Criminal Accountability, Mass Atrocities, and Civil Conflict

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Krcmaric, Daniel


Wibbels, Erik
Downes, Alexander

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I argue that the justice cascade--the recent trend toward holding leaders accountable for massive human rights violations--produces both positive and negative effects by influencing the post-tenure fates of leaders. On the negative side, the justice cascade exacerbates conflict. By undermining the possibility of a safe exile for culpable leaders, the pursuit of international justice incentivizes such leaders to cling to power and gamble for resurrection during conflicts when they would otherwise flee abroad. On the positive side, the justice cascade deters atrocities. Precisely because leaders know that committing gross human rights violations will decrease their exit options if they need to flee abroad, international justice effectively increases the cost of atrocities. Taken together, these predictions form the justice dilemma: ex ante deterrence and ex post gambling for resurrection are two sides of the same coin.

To test my argument, I exploit remarkable variation over time in the threat international justice poses to leaders. Specifically, I examine the arrest of former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom in 1998--the first time a leader was arrested in a foreign state for international crimes--as the watershed moment in the push for international accountability for culpable leaders. Before 1998, leaders lived in an impunity era where the expected probability of international punishment for atrocities was virtually zero. Starting in 1998, the world shifted toward an accountability era in which a slew of culpable leaders have been arrested and transferred to international courts, causing other leaders to update their beliefs on the likelihood of facing international justice.

Three main empirical results provide compelling support for the theory. I show that the decision of leaders to flee into exile is conditional on their expectations of post-tenure international punishment. Whereas culpable leaders are no more or less likely to flee abroad than nonculpable leaders before 1998, culpable leaders are about six times less likely to go into exile than nonculpable leaders after 1998. Rather than flee abroad, culpable leaders now have incentives to fight until the bitter end. Indeed, while there is no evidence of a relationship between leader culpability and conflict duration before 1998, I demonstrate that civil conflicts last significantly longer when culpable leaders are in power during the post-1998 period. This dark side of justice, however, creates a benefit: deterrence. Since leaders want to keep the exile option open in the event they need it, leaders are about five times less likely to commit mass atrocities after 1998 than they were previously.





Krcmaric, Daniel (2015). The Justice Dilemma: International Criminal Accountability, Mass Atrocities, and Civil Conflict. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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