Gambling with the Psyche: Does Prosecuting Human Rights Violators Console Their Victims?

52 Pages Posted: 10 Feb 2010

Date Written: July 1, 2005


This article presents the first empirically based analysis of how judicial proceedings against perpetrators of human rights violations – criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits – psychologically affect victims of those abuses. Policymakers, activists, and scholars frequently advance explicit or implicit claims about this impact, but generally offer no evidence to support them; at most, they provide a few anecdotes. This article combines insights from original interviews with therapists and lawyers with primary evidence from a comprehensive survey of published literature from social science research to personal memoirs.

The article begins by summarizing psychological literature on how human rights violations themselves affect victims. It then examines the impact of trials, presenting a typology of ten psychological dynamics that connect particular aspects of process or outcomes with changes in victims’ psychology. Some dynamics are psychologically beneficial, while others are harmful. Although the empirical record is insufficient to draw conclusions about the relative significance of the dynamics or the prevalence of any, it is clear that the impact of trials varies tremendously from victim to victim. The article concludes by recommending (1) a de-emphasis of judicial processes in favor of other methods for healing the psychological damage wrought by human rights violations, (2) greater attention by courts to victims’ psychological needs, and (3) systematic research on the psychological impact of trials, including testing the dynamics identified in this article.

Note: Since the publication of this article, a few new studies of the impact of trials on victims have appeared. Eric Stover’s The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in the Hague (2005) and David Mendeloff’s “Trauma and Vengeance: Assessing the Psychological and Emotional Effects of Post-Conflict Justice” (Human Rights Quarterly, 2009) are among the most valuable.

Keywords: Human rights, transitional justice, psychology, therapeutic jurisprudence, victims, criminal justice, prosecution, trial, trial witnesses, criminal justice

Suggested Citation

O'Connell, Jamie, Gambling with the Psyche: Does Prosecuting Human Rights Violators Console Their Victims? (July 1, 2005). Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 46, No. 2, Summer 2005, Available at SSRN:

Jamie O'Connell (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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