Friday, 23 August 2013

Holding tyrants personally accountable

The newspapers today are full of pictures of Syrian children gassed in their sleep. An atrocity that, like those which preceded it, the world seems powerless to prevent or punish. Our inter-national institutions are manifestly unable to secure peace and justice. Their tools - diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions - are limited in effectiveness even when they can be used at all. Yet perhaps there is something that we can do about such moral outrages. It was long believed to be a duty of all good men to kill a tyrant. My suggestion is that we revive the tradition of tyrannicide, but make it even more effective by finding a way to give bad men a good reason to kill a tyrant.

President Obama's 'red line' has been crossed by the Assad regime's large-scale use of chemical weapons on civilians. Yet there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it. The main tools that have been developed for international intervention are crude. Diplomatic sanctions are merely symbolic. Economic sanctions further immiserate the very people we want to save, while providing regime insiders with opportunities for profiteering for years to come. Military interventions have an even greater impact on civilians, and can easily push a bad regime into a failed state.

The central problem is that these are all tools that target the state as a whole, rather than its government. Their crudeness is exacerbated by the difficulty in employing them in the first place. Economic sanctions require virtual unanimity of major states at a venue like the UN; military interventions require massive domestic political mobilisation by the actors and the neutrality of other interested parties. As in the case of Syria, one cannot assume that these years-long efforts and negotiations will be free of geopolitical sparring and politicking.

In an interesting recent essay in The Stone, Feisal Mohamed raised another option which has been largely neglected in the modern era, perhaps because governments have come to be endowed with the sanctity of national sovereignty. Rather than focusing on inter-national action (i.e. sanctions against and invasions of the country where a tyrant holds power), this option personalises the problem and the solution of tyranny. Mohamed argues for reconsidering the traditional custom and duty of tyrannicide as a means for 'good men' to deal with hideously oppressive regimes. He quotes Seneca, who believed, together with many other classical philosophers,
There can be slain
No sacrifice to God more acceptable
Than an unjust and wicked King
Assassination has moral tidiness as well as practical efficiency going for it. If the problem is the wickedness of the tyrant - people like Bashar al-Assad, Teodoro Obiang, or Omar al-Bashir - then it would seem at least worth considering whether terminating the tyrant might terminate the problem more effectively than targeting the entire country as a rogue state. In addition, directly targeting the criminal in chief would seem much more justifiable than shooting up a bunch of conscripts or crippling an entire civilian economy. Tyrannicide may thus satisfy both consequentialist and deontological standards of justification: fewer innocents would suffer than otherwise and the person who does suffer is the criminal who deserves to.

While morally justifiable, tyrannicide has major operational problems. Perhaps most notably, tyrants take care to surround themselves with bad men rather than good. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has no doubt been the target of many attempted assassinations by opposition groups, yet his personal security entourage has so far kept him safe. Outside actors like NATO might find it easier to overcome such defences with war technologies like drones or cruise missiles, but tyrants are also very good at hiding. It is very difficult to strike with certainty: i.e. to be sure that the bunker in the bullseye contains the tyrant and that this attack will certainly kill him (and not too many other people).

Yet these problems also point to a solution. For while the tyrant may be very good at hiding from outsiders, he cannot hide from insiders in the same way since he is dependent on them for his survival. If one could somehow persuade his own entourage to assassinate him, his prospects would be dim. Let me therefore propose a way of increasing the effectiveness of the tyrannicide option: Put an enormous bounty on the tyrant's head and let other bad guys do the dirty work.

A tyrant has two sorts of entourage, personal and executive. The former looks after his 'needs' and protects his safety. The latter run the machinery of the oppressive state (military, secret police, etc). In order to remain on top of the power structure he must retain contact with his executive branch of generals. In order to survive, especially if he becomes a target for assassination, he must depend on his personal entourage. 

It's important to consider the kind of loyalty of the people in both entourages. The tyrant will employ all the emoluments of luxuries and privileges at his disposal, and likewise all the savage punishments for disloyalty. Yet the kind of loyalty a tyrant gains from these carrot and stick efforts is questionable because it is future oriented: it is based on the belief that the tyrant will continue to be able to reward and punish his minions in the future.

Not least, this pragmatic 'loyalty' is questionable in the tyrant's own mind. The tyrant knows full well that he doesn't morally deserve loyalty, and thus that no 'good man' would ever put their faith in him and make a moral commitment to his service. So he knows that the only men who do serve him must be either bad or weak, and thus psychologically incapable of genuine loyalty. As a result, the tyrant anticipates and suspects betrayal in every quarter, which, as Plato analysed in The Republic, is a very uncomfortable and debilitating way to have to live. 

Here is my modest proposal. The UN Security Council should assign itself the power to put a $50 million bounty on the head of a tyrant, defined as someone who is subject to an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for war-crimes/crimes against humanity and is a serving head of state. The bounty should include a comprehensive amnesty and resettlement package for whoever does the deed. It would only be rescinded if the tyrant renounced power or surrendered to the court, or if the ICC dropped the indictment.

If this tool were available, how would it work? In the case of Bashar al-Assad, if the ICC issued an indictment against him for the crimes committed by his regime, including his recent use of chemical weapons, then unless he immediately renounced power or surrendered to the Court, the UNSC would automatically consider a resolution making him become the subject of a bounty. That bounty would instantly provide every member of the inner-core of the al-Assad regime with a very strong incentive to turn on him.

And here's the clever part. Even if no member of his entourage goes for the prize, out of fear or even real loyalty, it will nevertheless introduce a new and debilitating source of paranoia into the regime. Up to this point, everyone inside Bashar al-Assad's personal and executive entourages have been locked closer together by every new atrocity committed by government forces. They know they have to hang together, otherwise they will end up being hanged together. Now everyone will be aware that escape is possible in the form of a get out of jail free and very rich card. And the person who will be most aware of this will be the tyrant himself, who will look at everyone who serves him so unctuously, from his gardeners to his bodyguards to his generals, and wonder, 'Will this be the one who kills me?' As Bashar al-Assad becomes more suspicious of those closest to him, they in turn will come to doubt his competence to survive to reward their loyalty and will be more attracted to the new option before them. Without solidarity, the bonds of mutual trust that a tyrannical regime requires to function will unravel. 

It might be objected that tyrannicide is no solution if tyranny is built into the character of the regime itself. Bashar al-Assad's father massacred tens of thousands of civilians in the 1980s and now his son is doing the same. Perhaps being the leader of such a regime requires such behaviour, since its authority is built on popular fear rather than popular legitimacy. So even if some bodyguard knocked off the present tyrant, whoever rose to power next would immediately proceed to commit the same kind of atrocities.

Yet I'm not sure this quite captures the new tyrant's perspective. In the status quo a tyrant fears for the collapse of his regime either by domestic revolt or inter-national intervention, and has good reason to worry more about his own subjects than the UN. So the rational tyrant naturally chooses bloody repression over human rights. Under the bounty system he will have good reason to fear the immediate personal consequences of committing the kinds of atrocities that the whole world condemns. He will at least moderate the means he employs to try to stay in power.

Considering the perspective of the new tyrant brings up another advantage of putting a bounty on the heads of tyrants. (Though this may be too late for the likes of Bashar al-Assad.) Though the UNSC is a slow and unreliable defender of human rights - with autocracies like China and Russia for members - the world's tyrants cannot rely upon that, as the UNSC authorization of military interventions in Libya and Cote d'Ivoire shows. The very possibility of becoming the subject of an assassination bounty means that there is a new and very personal threat on every tyrant's horizon. Every time he contemplates a new crime against his people he will wonder to himself, 'Will this be the one they kill me for?'


There is a global consensus that the atrocities of tyrants are unacceptable (even Syria is a signatory to the ICC). Yet confusing the tyrant with the country he governs has led to a focus on inter-national rather than direct action. Inter-national action is capable of nation changing results. Yet that very scale of ambition makes it difficult and time-consuming to deploy. It also introduces enormous new harms and risks that make it questionable whether it is better than doing nothing. The alternative of reintroducing personal responsibility for tyrants is overdue for reconsideration. In many cases it may be more effective and more justifiable than inter-national intervention.

The proposal of a bounty is thoroughly pragmatic. It does its work in three distinct ways. First, by terminating the careers of criminals responsible for ongoing atrocities. Second, by undermining the internal solidarity of a tyrannical regime and thus its capacity for committing evil. Third, by altering the pay off structure that all tyrants face in their choices it provides bad men with good reason not to commit such atrocities in the first place.

The proposal itself can be introduced and function within our existing framework of flawed international institutions of peace and justice. It thus avoids the moral philosopher's tendency to wishful thinking: imagining ourselves a more perfect world to live in. Its ambitions are also ameliorative rather than perfectionist. It focuses on putting an end to what all can agree are gross evils, rather than resolving more contentious issues, such as which people and what political system should govern Syria. It is thus aimed at making the world better (i.e. less worse), not bringing about true peace and justice. 


  1. What if Assad tries to retaliate by offering a bounty on our leaders' heads?

    1. First, that objection does not seem specific to my proposal. Why wouldn't tyrants deploy that option (or threaten to) in response to regular inter-national interventions? (Supposedly, Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate Bush senior after the first Gulf War.)

      But in any case it doesn't seem to me that tyrants have a symmetrical capability to threaten assassination.

      1. Tyrants are surrounded by bad guys predominantly motivated by self-interest and fear. The leaders of free democratic countries are surrounded by people who believe in them and are primarily motivated by duty, and are thus rather less likely to be attracted by a bounty.

      2. Unlike the UN, tyrants can't make convincing promises about future payoffs and security for potential assassins. In particular, they can't offer global amnesty to assassins.

  2. See also

    We have Silk Road; why not assassination markets?

  3. Yeah, so false flag chemical attack, conducted by the Obama regime's proxies is a good reason to commit "tyrannicide"? Please, please don't give the Syrians any ideas.

  4. There are some philosphers who hold the view that it is Bashar Asad is the only person that keeps Syria from falling into the hands of religion-craved,flesh-eating beasts who would push that country in to a living hell for its educated, secular citizens

    1. How very silly. I've long argued that philosophers should read the Economist for at least a year before making comments on international affairs.

    2. Done that and been there. But left after many years of readership, agreeing with Andrew Sullivan that : The closer you look, the weaker it gets. Beneath the shrewd blizzard of one-liners, Oxford Union ripostes, and snazzy graphs, the little secret of The Economist is that it actually contains less original reporting than many other newsmagazines.
      May seem silly but my approach to international affairs now is philosophical: "collect information from all sides of the debate and make the moral choice"

    3. Despite its flaws, the Economist is the best I have found for global political economic analysis. (The 'originality' of its reporting hardly seems relevant.)

      It seems the bare minimum for political philosophers to educate themselves in how the world and its global institutions actually work before they unleash their abstract moral theories upon it.

  5. Ultimate responsibility includes having ultimate accountability. Or should anyway.

    1. Does your point apply to the United States of America as well?

  6. Interesting read. You've tried to make government sanctioned murder as 'democratic' as possible.

    So, only an indictment suffices to order the execution of someone? No trial? A group of POLITICAL actors, each with a personal POLITICAL stake in a conflict, make a POLITICAL decision to extra-judicially execute a ruler of a country. You're giving the finger to the rule of law, pretty much the same way tyrants do. Joseph Stalin, is that you?

    The question also arises; what if war crimes/crimes against humanity are perpetrated by a P-5 member of the UNSC?Considering the world's premier democracy committed gross violations of peremptory jus cogen norms (torture) with complete impunity, this is a very real possibility. And lest we forget the plethora of war crimes committed in the last 10 years.

    Furthermore, your response to a post above isn't satisfactory;

    The rebel faction in Syria is not a homogeneous entity and large factions of it comprise of hardcore Salafi, Wahabi Islamists. If Assad's forces weren't enough, in-fighting between Islamist militants and the SNC is harming the rebellion.
    It would be foolhardy to ignore the war crimes of factions of the rebels or persecution suffered by religious minorities at the hands of rebels, such as the beheading of a priest or the destruction of Christian religious symbols.

    Perhaps paying heed to both sides of the arguments about the conflict in Syria, as someone has suggested above, will help.

    Furthermore, your response to another post (Tyrants surround themselves with bad people motivated ONLY out of self interest) is frankly ridiculous and betrays your lack of understanding of Middle East politics, nationalism and more importantly, the sectarianism and tribalism which forms the fabric of politics in the region.

    1. I see your righteousness, but not its helpfulness.

      When a crime is in process different procedural rules of justice apply. For example, police officers in civilised countries are not permitted to judicially execute criminals, but they are empowered to use force, including lethal force, to stop an imminent crime. (cf UN resolution 1973 authorising "all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya")

      War crimes don't have two sides. They have criminals. The correct attitude is not adjudication of which side is right, but police action. This is one of the points that distinguishes the regime change focus of inter-national action from the direct action focus of tyrannicide. We do not have to decide who should govern Syria in order to hold its tyrant personally responsible for his crimes. This is an exercise of applied moral philosophy, not political philosophy.

      The model I propose strips the tyrant of his peculiar status and legal protection as the sovereign ruler of Syria and treats him as the bandit he behaves. Of course there are other war criminals in Syria, but none of them act with the same impunity as its tyrant, nor do they have the same resources for mass atrocities.

      Bad things will still happen. Putin's government does terrible things in the Caucasus and will not be prevented by this. But what would prevent him? The standard for judging this proposal is not whether it will bring about perfect peace and justice, but whether it may prevent at least some gross evils from being committed that the world is presently helpless to do anything about. We would be foolish indeed to believe that because we can't prevent all injustices we shouldn't try to prevent any.

  7. Why not offer a bounty that rewards whoever ends the conflict, however they do so?

  8. To extend the counter argument that killing a tyrant does end tyranny. Is personal decision making of leaders really critical in such conflicts? Tyrants are shown in the media as a one-man show running the state. But what is more often the case (in almost any political system) they are simply the public face for entrenched interests groups. For example, behind the regime of Sadam where the interests of certain branches of the military and groups that benefited by economic arrangements(think, oil) at the time. In the event of assassinating Sadam and his successors the interest groups that want to prolong the regime have not fallen. Is it really the leadership that is important or the interests of rent seeking groups for a regime to fall?

    1. Although the situation in Syria was at the forefront of my mind in making this proposal, it is intended more generally as a means of preventing and stopping gross crimes rather than resolving conflicts.

      Note that the ICC is based on the principle that one can hold individuals criminally responsible for crimes against the peace, and already has an indictment out on Sudan's tyrant Omar al-Bashir. So I'm not proposing anything new there.

  9. Not to seem pedantic in what is a well-considered article, but this phrase cries out against the tyranny of its writer: "...less innocents would suffer...."

  10. Nice article.

    "The UN Security Council should assign itself the power to put a $50 million bounty on the head of a tyrant, defined as someone who is subject to an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for war-crimes/crimes against humanity and is a serving head of state"

    The UN Security Council will never do any such thing, for all the obvious reasons. Why, say, would Russia want to do anything to help topple Assad now? Had Russia wanted to help solve the Syria problem in a sane way, it would have thrown its weight behind such an outcome.

    The fact that Russia has not done so shows neatly that many of these problems are not in fact only about the local tyrant, but about the international machinations surrounding possible action against him (usually a him).

    That said, we (UK/US/NATO) used a version of this policy against Slobodan Milosevic from 1998-2000. We made every possible political effort to isolate him personally, and to get quiet messages in to people around him that they should abandon the sinking ship.

    Plus (crucially) we invested heavily in the sensible opposition to Milosevic by setting up training courses in different policy areas (agriculture, economy, education etc)for the day they would achieve power. The forces in Syria opposing Assad may or may need weapons. They definitely need practical ideas on how to run Syria as a respectable modern country should they in fact win.

    Note too that during the NATO operation against 'Yugoslavia' in 1998, those people recommending that we try to take out individual members of the top leadership in a decapitation strategy were overruled by government lawyers saying that military attacks on civilians and people not directly involved in the FRY's military command chain would be illegal under international law.

    So, good idea. Won't happen.

    1. Cheers!

      Getting my proposal (or something similar) through the UN bureaucracy may well be more difficult than I imply. But is it so unrealistic? Many of the principles are already well established.

      1. The UNSC already has the power to order military interventions and sanctions against rogue regimes (e.g. N. Korea in 1950, Iraq in 1990, Libya in 2011). I don't see why they wouldn't also give themselves this much more minor power, especially with the usual UNSC veto rights to protect their geopolitical interests. And if they did so in the right way then it would become part of international law.

      2. The ICC treaty already requires signatories to assist in rendering indictees to the Court, including serving heads of state (such as Omar al-Bashir).

      Would Russia veto a bounty on Bashar al Assad's head? Not as certainly as it would veto military intervention. After all, their ally is the regime, not the embarrassingly awful tyrant who happens to lead it. The bounty proposal doesn't have to work only by actually decapitating the tyrant. It can also work by introducing uncertainty and personal fear into his decision-making.

  11. Is the United States' $20 million bounty on bin Laden a counter-example to this proposal or a confirming example? In this case, there was a large bounty for years that was never taken up by bin Laden's personal or executive entourages, bin Laden was never betrayed, and he survived for nearly a decade. On the other hand, his power and influence were reduced significantly (we are led to believe), perhaps in part because the bounty was effective: he had to reduce the sizes of his executive and personal entourages so significantly that he could no longer effectively exert his 'tyranny'. It's also perhaps a special case, because bin Laden-qua-tyrant may have hidden under the protection of a Pakistan-qua-nation state, effectively transferring the loyalty of entourages in a non-tyrant state onto bin Laden.


    1. Plausible, though necessarily speculative.

      Unfortunately, bounties may be less effective against terrorist leaders insofar as they lead people who are committed to a conception of moral evil rather than merely self-interest. On the other hand, many rank and file terrorists seem to get into it during a difficult time in their personal lives, and eventually get over that phase and start looking for a way out.....

  12. Another ill-informed ramble (see my comments on your prison piece).

    Firstly, does this mean that former and current US presidents should have bounties places on their heads too? State-sanctioned drone strikes lead to civilian deaths too. Guantanamo Bay is an atrocious black mark on the integrity of the 'free world'.

    Secondly, what kind of naivety the author possess to take the moral condemnation of Syria at face value? This is ABSOLUTELY tied in with Israel's desire to eradicate its geographical threats, the massive Jewish lobby in the US. If these things did not exist America would have no interest in intervention.

    Thirdly, you forget that the function of power is always in operation. Who gets to label another as the oppressor, and who becomes the oppressed. The voice of the US is far stronger and pervasive. Some bounties would be sanctioned before others.

    I don't hate America, I lived and worked their for two years and met some wonderful people. However, arguments like this perpetuate the worst stereotypes of American self-righteousness.

    1. 1. "former and current US presidents"?? Read my actual proposal.

      2. This is what an ill-informed ramble looks like.

      3. There's power in the world. It's not fair. Get over it.

      4. I am not American and this essay is not about America. Not everything in the world is about America.

  13. PB´s idea falls down in the face of tyrants with nukes. The UNSC simply lacks the nuts to publicly issue a "black spot" against someone like Kim Jong for example.

    1. Maybe. Although WMD in general seem over-rated as a deterrent, as in the cases of Iraq (twice) and Syria.

  14. How about cross border attack ? It might be affect the economic of the state who did it ?