In democracies struggling with violence and the rule of law, when is legal mobilization effective in encouraging the state to take judicial responsibility for harming its own people? This project will analyze how victims of serious, state-perpetrated human rights abuses (extra-judicial killing, torture and disappearance) collaborate with NGOs in pursuit of justice, and when and why they succeed. It will measure the influence of strategic litigation (domestic litigation used together with NGO-organized protests, lobbying, media campaigns, high-level meetings, international solidarity networks, and international litigation) on domestic judicial outcomes and litigants' ongoing safety. It posits that with strong strategic litigation, victims are more likely to achieve justice and improve their safety. By comparing human rights cases in Mexico and Colombia, this study will explore how factors like judicial autonomy, citizen faith and participation in the judicial system, and the domestic situating of international law affect the success of these strategies. By using both quantitative regression and paired case studies, it will interrogate the relationship between mobilization, justice and safety.

Analyzing the efficacy of the rule of law from the bottom up will provide a balance for scholarship that has approached questions of rule of law from a top-down, often state-centered understanding of courts and law. The data on judicial outcomes in lower courts, citizen mobilization and victim security will add to the burgeoning legal mobilization scholarship on international outcomes. Beyond these scholarly contributions, the project seeks to provide victims and their NGO advocates with analysis of the efficacy of their mobilization activities. Further, it seeks to inform the policymaking community about levels of state impunity, and may suggest the need for reform: if victims with access to advocacy resources receive more justice, this suggests the need to ensure all victims have a means of redressing the resource imbalance that they confront when accusing the state of violating its own laws.

Project Report

Most countries are not able to hold guilty parties responsible for violating people’s most fundamental right – the right to life – most of the time. My research critically engages with this basic government function, shedding new light on how citizens engaging with the judicial branch can expand the state’s capacity to provide justice to its citizens and strengthen the rule of law. My dissertation examines how organized citizen action - protests, media campaigns, meetings with state investigators, national and international litigation and advocacy - can play a decisive role at a critical juncture in the judicial treatment of grave crimes, specifically enforced disappearance and murder. Using a multi-level and multi-methods research design, I present evidence from Mexico and Colombia that that two types of citizen action are key to breaking patterns of impunity, or freedom from punishment. First, organized citizens must apply focused political pressure targeting impunity - what I call outsider pressure. Second, civil society actors must bridge the gap of trust between the state and victim by facilitating the sharing of investigatory information and using political connections to ensure the accountability of investigators - what I call insider involvement. These findings are drawn from more than two years of fieldwork, including extensive ethnographic fieldwork with human rights and victims’ organizations in both Mexico and Colombia, more than 200 interviews with human rights NGOs and victim advocates, and the construction of original databases of judicial outcomes in both Mexico and Colombia. Most studies concerned with the rule of law, and in particular the judiciary, have focused on state and institution-led reform efforts like legal reform and training for judges and investigators. By adding a consideration of how organized citizen action matters in determining judicial outcomes, I bring social movement actors into the picture as agenda setters and incentivizers for institutional accountability and human rights compliance. The question of how to strengthen the rule of law is a daily, pressing one for many citizens who live in violent societies, especially those in which the right to life is not reliably guaranteed by the state. These findings, which demonstrate that citizens are crucial to breaking the patterns of institutional intertia in the justice system, may be useful for practitioners, funders and policymakers. For practitioners, these findings advise an insider/outsider advocacy strategy. For funders, these findings point to the importance of funding local groups in their judicial accompaniment of victims of, not only large NGOs. For policymakers, these fundings highlight the importance of designing laws in which citizen participation in the justice system is allowed and facilitated.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Marjorie Zatz
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Cornell University
United States
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