Stopping Mass Atrocities: How do International Criminal Courts and Regional Human Rights Systems Compare?

Colloquium | November 28 | 12:30-2 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall

 Jamie O'Connell, Senior Fellow, Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law

 Center for African Studies

Since the early 1990s, governments and activists have invested tremendous financial, political, and human resources in international criminal courts to promote accountability for and prevent mass atrocities, but far less in regional human rights institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights. Yet the criminal courts, especially the ICC, have been criticized for trying few defendants at a glacial pace, and having minimal impact on the societies where atrocities occurred. By contrast, evidence suggests, at least, that regional human rights institutions have played an important role in promoting accountability and preventing mass atrocity. And they have done so at a fraction of the cost of international criminal courts.

This paper first examines how effectively international criminal courts and regional human rights institutions promote accountability for and prevent mass atrocities. It analyzes the institutions' historical records and new evidence from both large-sample quantitative studies and qualitative research. It then considers the efficiency of the two types of institutions, by comparing their impact to their cost. We conclude that both international criminal courts and regional human rights institutions can contribute significantly to accountability and prevention, although the nature of mass atrocity and its lasting impact preclude either from having the rapid or dramatic impact that some had envisioned for the criminal courts. We conclude that institutional elements of regional bodies enable them to achieve the same impact at vastly lower cost compared to international criminal tribunals. If governments are unwilling to invest more in international human rights institutions of all sorts, then they should prioritize regional mechanisms, to save more lives and achieve more justice.

Jamie O’Connell is a Senior Fellow of the Honorable G. William and Ariadna Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, as well as a Lecturer in Residence. He teaches and writes on political and legal development, and has particular expertise in law and development, transitional justice, democratization, post-conflict reconstruction, and business and human rights.

O’Connell has worked on human rights and development in over a dozen countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe, under the auspices of the United Nations, local and international non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions. He is founding President of International Professional Partnerships for Sierra Leone (, a non-governmental organization that works with the government of Sierra Leone to enhance the performance of its agencies and civil servants. Earlier in his career, O’Connell studied international business as a researcher at Harvard Business School, publishing numerous case studies. He has directed the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Sierra Leone and taught as a visitor at Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School. O’Connell clerked for the Honorable James R. Browning on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and is admitted to practice in California (inactive status) and New York. In 2016-17, he was a visiting professor and Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Valencia (Spain) Faculty of Law.

O’Connell’s publications include “Common Interests, Closer Allies: How Democracy in Arab States Can Benefit the West” (Stanford Journal of International Law, 2012); “Empowering the Disadvantaged after Dictatorship and Conflict: Legal Empowerment, Transitions and Transitional Justice,” in Legal Empowerment: Practitioners’ Perspectives (2010); “East Timor 1999,” in The Responsibility to Protect: Moving the Campaign Forward (2007); “Gambling with the Psyche: Does Prosecuting Human Rights Violators Console Their Victims?” (Harvard International Law Journal, 2005); “Here Interest Meets Humanity: How to End the War and Support Reconstruction in Liberia, and the Case for Modest American Leadership” (Harvard Human Rights Journal, 2004); and Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Special Court: A Citizen’s Handbook (with Paul James-Allen and Sheku B.S. Lahai, 2003)., 510-642-8338