Whether or not to assassinate dictators

Debate on assassinating dictators

By Alastair Endersby

Assassination can be defined as the targeted killing of an individual for political reasons in peacetime. It can be undertaken by individual citizens, or by the agents of another state, but in either case it takes place without any legal process.

Assassinating a dictator is often considered in the context of Hitler and Stalin, or of secret CIA action against foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro in the Cold War period (after this became public knowledge in the mid-1970s US Presidents have banned the use of assassination by Executive Order). However, this issue regained topicality in the 1990s as leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic pursued bloody careers which threatened international peace. In recent years US airstrikes apparently aimed at killing Muammar Qaddafi of Libya (1986), Osama Bin Laden (1998) and Saddam Hussein (1991 and 2003) have provoked argument – were these assassination attempts or did these leaders have the status of enemy combatants in a time of war? Certainly the UN Charter (Article 24) and various conventions (e.g New York Convention) clearly appear to make assassination in peacetime against international law.

The arguments below focus on the issue of assassination of a dictator in peacetime, although many of them would also apply to the specific military targeting of foreign leaders in a time of war. The topic can be debated from the perspective of internal opposition movements seeking to rid their country of dictatorship, or from the perspective of the international community.

Utilitarian argument: many deaths and much suffering could be prevented if one man is killed. The greater good demands a single evil act is done, especially if it would avert the immediate and certain danger of much worse evil. Who now wouldn’t wish that Hitler had been killed in 1933?

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Moral absolutism argument: murder can never be justified. If we assume the role of executioner without the backing of law we are sinking down to the level of the dictators. Any new government founded upon such an arbitrary act will lack moral legitimacy, undermining its popular support and making its failure likely. Consider the long civil war in Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., or the failure of the British Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I in 1649.

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Dictatorial systems are highly personal, so removing the driving force behind such a regime will result in its collapse, allowing a more popular and liberal government to replace it.

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Killing one individual will achieve nothing; dictators are part of a wider ruling elite from which someone sharing the same autocratic values will emerge to take their place. This successor is likely to use the assassination as the excuse for further repression.

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Assassination of a dictator may be the only way to effect change in a country where a repressive police state prevents any possibility of internal opposition. Cowed populaces need a signal in order to find the courage to campaign for change. If there is no way to bring tyrants guilty of terrorizing their own people to justice, then assassination can be justified. And the example elsewhere of assassinated dictators will act as a warning to would be tyrants in future.

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Assassination is likely to be counter-productive, rallying popular feeling around a repressive regime as external enemies or internal minorities are blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the act. This is even more likely to result from an unsuccessful assassination. Furthermore an alternative now exists for bringing dictators to justice. Regime change has been shown to be possible in a number of countries and former dictators are being held to account for their actions. The Special UN Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia has been able to put Slobodan Milosevic on trial, and Saddam Hussein is facing justice in Iraq. The International Criminal Court now provides a permanent forum for such action to be taken, and is itself a deterrent to would-be tyrants in the future.

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Dictators are a threat to international peace, not just their own people. Their tendency to attack other countries in order to divert attention from their unpopular actions at home means that assassination is justified as a means of preventing a terrible war, which might rapidly become a regional or global conflict.

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Sometimes dictatorship is preferable to the alternatives, especially for those outside the country itself. It has often been in the interests of the great powers to support autocrats who would promote their geopolitical interests in a way that a democratic regime would not, especially in the cold war period. Sometimes dictators have successfully held countries together which otherwise might have descended into civil war and ethnic strife. Events in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was deposed have shown that even worse violence and suffering can be unleashed if a strong hand is suddenly removed.

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If scruples over the morality of our actions prevent us pursuing a greater good, it will never be possible to oppose evil effectively. Dictators themselves ignore normal ethical standards and international conventions, so they effectively place themselves beyond the protection of the law.

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By assuming the power to take life arbitrarily, even in an apparently good cause, we cheapen the value of life itself. Many terrorists, criminals, or indeed dictators could and have claimed similar legitimacy for their violent actions. Only if we ourselves respect human rights absolutely, will our promotion of these values seem valid to others. States that use assassination as a political weapon will soon find that others seek to turn it against them.

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The alternatives to assassination would all leave a dictator in power for many years. In that time not only will many more people suffer under a repressive system, but the policies pursued by an out-of-touch and unrepresentative regime are likely to do serious (if unintentional) harm to the whole nation and its economy, making eventual rebuilding much more costly in both human and economic terms.

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Alternatives such as constructive engagement or economic sanctions are preferable and much more likely to result in eventual liberalization of the regime, albeit slowly. The examples of Eastern Europe in 1989 and Yugoslavia in 2000 show that even in apparently hopeless cases, change can come through popular action, often quickly and without great violence. Cambodia in 1979, Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003 all saw dictatorships quickly overthrown by external forces.

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Tyranny and oppression are obvious wherever they take place. It isn’t just how democratic a regime is, it is whether it uses its power to inflict great suffering upon its people or others, against all human rights standards. If leaders guilty of genocide or other crimes against humanity can be brought to account through the normal democratic process or the courts, then fine. But if they cannot, then their people have the moral right to take up arms against them. Sometimes this will mean assassination.

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Who decides who deserves to be assassinated? Politics is not a black-and-white affair and states regarded by some as dictatorships are seen quite differently by others. For example, Slobodan Milosevic could claim a popular mandate for many of his actions in the former Yugoslavia. General Pinochet in Chile seized power by force but later gave it up, allowing a democratic state to emerge. Many authoritarian rulers around the world today pay at least lip service to democracy, even if elections are “managed” and the possibility of real change is strictly limited. Even if we had the right to make judgements as to which leaders deserve to die, our decisions would be arbitrary and without widespread support.

FORUM | AMHARIC