How do domestic trials addressing wartime violence affect public opinion of government? The legitimation functions of national courts are well studied in liberal democracies, but less is known about the effects of trials that address abuses committed during large-scale conflict. This article investigates how the extent to which such trials achieve procedural justice (fairness in process) and retributive justice (allocation of punishment) affects perceptions of political legitimacy. I provide survey-experimental evidence from post-conflict El Salvador that leverages the repeal of a longstanding amnesty law. Although a trial in general improves citizen evaluations of state competence, fairness and punishment serve crucial – and distinct – legitimation functions. Procedural fairness significantly increased citizens’ willingness to comply with state authorities, regardless of trial outcome. Yet, an unfair trial, when coupled with punishment, bolstered trust in politicians and the judiciary. This suggests a trade-off between public preferences for fairness and an ‘iron fist’ approach to violence. The findings reveal the limits of procedural justice in a post-conflict environment and furnish new insights on the multifaceted functions of human rights trials.
This was originally published on SAGE Publications Ltd: Journal of Peace Research: Table of Contents.