Is it better to let dictators retire in peace?

The moral answer is obvious – dictators should be prosecuted – but granting amnesty has some advanta

While attention has been focused on whether the changes in Egypt represent the beginning of the end for Middle East autocracy, a rearranging of the guard or even an Islamist revival, the question of what happens to the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and others remains open. Although Mubarak has vowed to remain in Egypt for the moment, rumoured destinations for him and his family range from Saudi Arabia, to where the Tunisian tyrant Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has already fled, to Britain. This raises the question whether it is better to allow dictators to retire peacefully and enjoy their ill-gotten gains, in return for standing aside, or whether it is important to prosecute them fully, even if this means that they are more likely to cling to power.

From a moral perspective, the answer is relatively straightforward. If the international community is at all serious about enforcing human rights then those who have engaged in repression and unlawful usurpation of power, such as Hosni Mubarak and other Arab autocrats, should face punishment. Furthermore, the obligation to bring former tyrants to justice is so great that it overrides any considerations of sovereignty, jurisdiction or amnesty. The House of Lords judgment in 1998 that Augusto Pinochet could be extradited to Spain, and the establishment of the International Criminal Court four years later, followed this principle.

In contrast, some theorists, such as Professor Jane Curry of Santa Clara University, have argued that such a hardline approach is too simplistic, and may prolong crises by discouraging autocratic leaders from leaving office lest they face prosecution. Indeed, Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University, author of the forthcoming book The Dictator's Handbook, contends that, "the ability to grant amnesty in the face of a credible threat that the dictator is about to be overthrown is the smart thing to do".

Bueno de Mesquita argues that presenting autocrats with a face-saving alternative to clinging to power might even save lives, because they would then have "less reason to be severely oppressive".

However, even when viewed solely in utilitarian terms, such "pragmatism" comes with its own drawbacks. Game theory suggests that encouraging current dictators to leave office by making retirement more attractive will also encourage future dictators to seize power, by lowering the risk that they will face prosecution. Given that 60 countries, representing nearly a third of the world's population, are (according to Freedom House) only "partly free", and therefore at risk of moving further into totalitarianism, this should be a grave concern. There is also the possibility that lenient treatment may allow dictators to regroup and mount a comeback, like Joaquín Balaguer in the Dominican Republic.

Even Bueno de Mesquita admits that his suggestions need to be treated cautiously. In particular, he warns that allowing leaders to leave with their loot may give them a green light to plunder during their stay in office. He also confesses that, on a personal level, he "would not be happy" with dictators enjoying an opulent retirement. And he believes that immunity from arrest should come only if they fulfil conditions, such as a speedy and painless exit, rather than be offered as a matter of course.

Ultimately, Mubarak's failing health may mean that the debate over whether he should be prosecuted for the crimes committed during his regime becomes moot. However, any impression that Britain and the United States are happy to let dictators enjoy an opulent life after office will not be viewed positively in the region, and may encourage those in the military and security services to make their own bid for power.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.