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.