The best books about bringing dictators and evil men to justice

Who am I?

I grew up in part in Chile, and when the Pinochet dictatorship started killing and torturing people, I wanted to do something about it. Years later, as a professor of international law, I helped countries figure out what to do after mass atrocities. Seeing how trials in other countries – or in international criminal courts – could break through barriers and make it possible to bring those who killed, tortured, or disappeared thousands of people to justice gave me hope. I wanted to tell the stories of the brave people who overcame the odds to do justice, in a readable and exciting way that also explained the legal and political issues involved. 


I wrote...

The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights

By Naomi Roht-Arriaza,

Book cover of The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights

What is my book about?

The 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London, on a Spanish warrant, electrified victims of human rights violations. If such people could be investigated and charged outside their country, the limitations that made it hard to go after such people at home could be overcome. The arrest not only opened up new possibilities for justice worldwide, it changed the balance at home in Chile, which pursued a newly-feasible idea of trial for Pinochet’s crimes.

I spent five years following this case and all its spinoffs. I try to explain not just what happened, but what choices those involved had to make, what strategies they pursued, and what the case means for international law, global politics, and the ways a determined group of people can push collective imagination forward. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of To Catch a Dictator: The Pursuit and Trial of Hissène Habré

Naomi Roht-Arriaza Why did I love this book?

Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, was one of the key actors in bringing former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré to justice for torture, rape, and mass murder he committed during the 1980s. The book chronicles the twists and turns, over almost two decades, of efforts to bring Habré to trial. That finally happened in 2018, in a specially-created African Union-backed court based in Senegal. The book celebrates the central role of victims in bringing Habré to justice, and tells an engaging and readable story from an insider’s perspective. It shows the creativity of the victims and lawyers in combining different legal forums and political and media pressure, but also the limits, and personal sacrifices, that victory required. 

By Reed Brody,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Catch a Dictator as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What does it take to make a dictator answer for his crimes? Hissene Habre, the former despot of Chad, had terrorized, tortured, and killed on a horrific scale over eight bloody years in power-all while enjoying full American and Western support. After Habre's overthrow, his victims and their supporters were determined to see him held responsible for his atrocities. Their quest for justice would be long, tense, and unnerving, but they would not back down.

To Catch a Dictator is a dramatic insider's account of the hunt for Habre and his momentous trial. The human rights lawyer Reed Brody recounts…


Book cover of Balkan Justice: The Story Behind the First International War Crimes Trial Since Nuremberg

Naomi Roht-Arriaza Why did I love this book?

Slobodan Milosevic’s trial by the first post-Cold War international court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, required the creation of a whole new court and set of procedures, and established many of the current rules on trying war crimes and crimes against humanity. There’s a lot written on the ICTY, but I like Scharf’s book because he tells the backstories, explains the different choices that the court could have made, and makes for a fascinating read.

By Michael P. Scharf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Balkan Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is about the First International War Crime Trial since Nuremberg. Balkan Justice provides the inside story of the United Nations Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal charged with conducting the first international war crimes trials since World War11.


Book cover of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Naomi Roht-Arriaza Why did I love this book?

The grandmama of human rights-related trial accounts, and for good reason. Arendt covered the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1960s. Eichmann had been living in Argentina, and was kidnapped and taken to Israel, where he was tried and condemned for his role in the Holocaust. Arendt raises profound questions about the value of trials in the face of overwhelming evil, about how trials structure narratives, and about memory. Still issues we grapple with today.

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Eichmann in Jerusalem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A profound and documented analysis ... Bound to stir our minds and trouble our consciences' Chicago Tribune

Hannah Arendt's authoritative and stunning report on the trial of German Nazi SS leader Adolf Eichmann first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1963. This revised edition includes material that came to light after the trial, as well as Arendt's postscript commenting on the controversy that arose over her book. A major journalistic triumph by an intellectual of singular influence, Eichmann in Jerusalem is as shocking as it is informative - a meticulous and unflinching look at one…


Book cover of The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America

Naomi Roht-Arriaza Why did I love this book?

The dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America joined forces to detain, torture, and kill their perceived political enemies in the 1970s. Decades later, human rights lawyers, family members, and survivors joined forces themselves to bring those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice in the national courts of the region. Lessa, an Oxford researcher and long-time observer of these trials, writes this inspiring story of perseverance and hope. She explains the legal complexities of getting the defendants into court, trying large numbers of defendants, and hearing testimony from survivors scattered around the world about crimes committed long ago.  

By Francesca Lessa,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Condor Trials as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Stories of transnational terror and justice illuminate the past and present of South America's struggles for human rights

Through the voices of survivors and witnesses, human rights activists, judicial actors, journalists, and historians, Francesca Lessa unravels the secrets of transnational repression masterminded by South American dictators between 1969 and 1981. Under Operation Condor, their violent and oppressive regimes kidnapped, tortured, and murdered hundreds of exiles, or forcibly returned them to the countries from which they had fled. South America became a zone of terror for those who were targeted, and of impunity for those who perpetuated the violence.

Lessa shows…


Book cover of Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals

Naomi Roht-Arriaza Why did I love this book?

Etcheson has spent decades working for justice for survivors of the Khmer Rouge massacres of the 1970s. He tells the inside story of the diplomatic, legal, political, and social maneuvering behind the negotiation, setup, and operation of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia. That court, plagued by political interference, only managed to try three defendants, but its legacy went beyond the actual trials, sometimes in surprising ways. The book is engaging and has fascinating details on behind-the-scenes discussions.  

By Craig Etcheson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Extraordinary Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In just a few short years, the Khmer Rouge presided over one of the twentieth century's cruelest reigns of terror. Since its 1979 overthrow, there have been several attempts to hold the perpetrators accountable, from a People's Revolutionary Tribunal shortly afterward through the early 2000s Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Extraordinary Justice offers a definitive account of the quest for justice in Cambodia that uses this history to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the interaction between law and politics in war crimes tribunals.

Craig Etcheson, one of the world's foremost…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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