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Prosecutions

Explore research on the use of prosecutions as a tool to help prevent mass atrocities.

Overview of the Evidence on Prosecutions

Our research review includes 63 reports: 38 that address the effects of prosecutions on mass atrocities and 48 that address the effects of prosecutions on closely related outcomes, such as civilian killings, human rights violations, and conflict recurrence. It found the following:

  • A mix of findings as to whether prosecutions were effective in helping prevent mass atrocities or closely-related outcomes, and 
  • Relatively strong evidence on the association between several factors and greater effectiveness of prosecutions in helping prevent mass atrocities.
    • Contextual factors that were associated with prosecution success include the national government cooperating with the prosecutions; local support for the prosecutions; and the absence of ongoing armed conflict.
    • Design factors that were associated with prosecution success include having a high level of commitment; international support or coordination; engaging in local outreach; and pursuing prosecutions concurrently with other atrocity prevention tools.

About Prosecutions

Definition

Prosecutions of atrocity crimes are attempts to hold individuals criminally accountable for mass atrocities through national courts, the International Criminal Court, international tribunals, hybrid courts, or universal jurisdiction. This review is limited to analyses of the effects of actions to advance cases through courts, such as the referral of a case to a court, the opening of an investigation, indictments, arrest warrants, trials, and sentencing.

Theory of Change

If prosecutions increase the expected costs to individuals of committing atrocities, they would reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities. In addition, if prosecutions satisfy the desire for justice for past atrocities, they would reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities that might be committed to exact revenge on perpetrator groups. If prosecutions help remove individual perpetrators from positions of power or influence, they would reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities by facilitating a transition to a less atrocity-prone political leadership.

Strategies This Tool Can Support

(1) Dissuading potential perpetrators from committing mass atrocities
(2) Facilitating leadership or political transition
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