Transitional countries have struggled to overcome impunity for human rights violations committed by past authoritarian regimes. While some scholars have hailed the emergence of a ‘justice cascade’, a ‘justice revolution’, and an ‘age of accountability’, our research highlights the persistence of amnesty laws despite efforts to erode them. This article examines 63 amnesties for human rights violations committed by state agents that were enacted in 34 transitional countries from 1970 to 2011, and the 161 challenges that endeavoured to undermine the power of these laws.
We find significant variation in the outcome of challenges. While some lead to the removal or weakening of amnesty laws, others validate them. We explain the variation using an explanatory model that focuses on the characteristics of four actors: civil society, international governmental and non-governmental agencies, domestic executives and judicial leaders. Time also plays a conditioning role in our framework. We illustrate our argument by presenting emblematic country case studies. We conclude that even when amnesty laws are displaced or eroded, impunity tends to persist in some form.