Pinochet and Precedent

by Seth Weinberger

A Chilean court has just stripped former dictator Augusto Pinochet of his immunity so that he may face human rights charges in the disappearances of 29 people. While this may be a good decision from the perspective of retributive justice (see my earlier post on this), it has some troubling implications for international politics. Not the least of which is the possibility of undermining the likelihood of striking bargains in order to secure the ceding of power by dictators in other countries in the future. Dictators who believe that they will face prosecution and punishment are much less likely to step down and allow a peaceful transtition than are dictators who believe they will enjoy a cushy life in exile, or at least the chance to live out their dotage without being dragged into the dock. Now, while it may be evident to all that Pinochet deserves to be punished for his crimes, is that worth perhaps prolonging the rule of other brutes in other countries?

7 Responses

  1. Some might argue that such a precedent would act as an effective deterrant to national leaders perpetrating mass violations of human rights in the future?

  2. It’s certainly a possible trade-off, but I’m (just barely) with Seth on this one.

    Here are the relevant questions: Given all the benefits of abusive dictatorship, how much will would-be dictators be deterred from becoming dictators or becoming abusive if they fear the Pinochet treatment upon retirement? Probably some. On the other hand, ex post (i.e., once the abusive dictator has received substantial benefit from his reign), how much will abusive dictators be encouraged to abandon their abusive positions for the benefits of a cushy after-life? Likely some. There can be no doubt that treating abusive dictators like royalty after their reigns will induce some more people to become dictators and to be more abusive. But will that be outweighed by the great benefit of inducing them out of their positions earlier than they would otherwise abandon them (and, facing certain prosecution would induce a lot of staying power, I’m certain)? It’s a tough empirical question, and it turns on a lot of things I know little about (like when in a reign of terror do most of the benefits come — at the beginning or at the end? And how likely are abusive dictators to be deposed/shot before they retire? Etc.). My intuition is slightly with Seth on this one, however.

  3. Geoff’s point is an excellent one. The question on which the trade-off hinges is: Which is more likely in the future? Dictators stepping down or new dictators seizing power? My guess is that, given the number of countries still suffering under autocratic rule as well as the recent global trend towards democratization, that there will be more opportunities to encourage brutal rulers to step down than there will be chances for someone to seize power hoping to live large before being granted immunity. Thus, I would make the trade-off in favor of easing the way for dictators to step down, even if that violates our sense of justice and decency, and even if it may increase the chances of a new dictator emerging.

  4. I tend to agree with both geoff and seth on this. I have always maintained that the notion of deterrance is relatively unlikely to make any substantial difference to those people who for reasons of racism, prejudice, meglomania etc… decide to perpetrate mass violations of human rights. The idea of lauding immunity for such leaders does stick in the throat a little but removing such immunity and its effects on attempts to peacefully remove such leaders in the future is also an important consideration

  5. Is raw utility the best paradigm here? As I see it, if the debate between Seth and Fdelondras weighs out only in small measure in favor of one side or the other, then the civilized world should choose the morally right path. I know that is a loaded term, but surely we can agree that murdering, torturing, raping, thieving, etc., dictators deserve trial and punishment more than they deserve comfortable exile?

    Granted, this moral assurance would probably be an inadequate consolation to someone being tortured when the current dictator (authorizing said torture) has not yet left his office because he fears the consequences of no immunity, but (if immunity had been trustworthy) who would otherwise be relaxing on a beach in the Arab Emirates.

    On the other hand, whether or not one policy or the other (immunity or punishment) will be successful in its ends seems unpredictable to the extent that we would be better off foregoing speculative utility, and picking the path that we know in our hearts is the most just in its means.

    If we choose an international policy of punishing war criminals and human-rights-violating dictators (or at the very least, trying them), then perhaps we could get dictators to leave their positions of power with the promise of immunity on an ad hoc basis. (Like how cops and prosecutors sometimes offer criminals deals or plea bargains.) This methodology relies on the psyche 101 assumption that partial reinforcement is the best motivator.

    Seth may argue that dictators will not believe the civilized world when it promises immunity unless the track-record of extending reliable immunity remains unbroken (as it apparently will not with everyone’s favorite Chilean). But at the same time, if you are a dictator who fears his (or her) time in power is nearing an end, wouldn’t you hedge your bets and take the offered olive branch? At least that way you would have some chance of a comfortable life, opposed to the fiasco trial and execution that otherwise awaits…

    Sadly, I fear that the “dictator rationale” we are speculating upon depends on whether or not Bush or another Bush-styled president is in office in the US. Moreover, maybe most dictators suffer too greatly from megalomania and delusions of grandeur for our exercise (which considers them at least semi-rational actors) to be at all fruitful.

    Currently I am opposed to Seth’s original point; I say, choose the path that is right from the deontological perspective, at least when the teleological (utility) perspective remains so unclear.

  6. Walker:

    An interesting point, but I’m not so convinced by your logic. First, it’s not so evident that either choice is “right” from a deontological perspective. There is no single understanding of justice, as I note in my earlier post on the Hussein trial. Does justice for some trump justice for many others?

    Your suggestion of ad hoc immunity is interesting, but it would still depend on dictators believing that the immunity would not be later revoked. If Chile had wanted to prosecute Pinochet from the beginning, fine. But to extend immunity to get him out of office and then revoke it later is what troubles me. Doesn’t Chile have a deontological duty to honor its promise?

    Finally, I’m not sure what you meant in equating teleology with utility. Teleoloy refers to explaning phenomena in reference to a historically determined end. That is, Kant’s argument for perpetual peace rested on his observation that human existence had a teleological purpose; if you stand back and look at human history, you can see an inevitable (Kant thought) progression towards world government. It doesn’t have much to do with utility.

    Ultimately, the question for me boils down to the tension between law, justice, and politics. In a liberal domestic society, we tend to prioritize them in that order: law, justice, and politics. But it’s not so clear that that is the best ranking in all cases.

  7. Seth, good points. Quick responses:

    1- I don’t advocate for Chile necessarily breaking their promise (and I agree from a deontological perspective this is bad), but I don’t think it has the same impact on utility that you do. I don’t think that having the international community lie every now and then (about whether a dictator is going to get the immunity they were promised) is going to keep dictators in power for much longer than they would have been otherwise. This way it just keeps them on their toes.

    2- We’ll use the terms deontological and utilitarian then. In the few philosophy classes I took in undergrad, the distinction I remember is that teleological thoughts’ association with utility is that it isn’t a rights-based perspective, but rather an empirical, observation-based-outcome perspective, the same perspective that utilitarians use in judging the worth of their actions ex post. I may be misusing the word — please substitute some form of the word utility when I say teleological.

    3- Anyway, we really don’t need to use big words to discuss this point. I don’t see their being any advantage to always dealing fairly and honestly with murderous dictators. If you could clearly convince me that there was a real benefit to shooting straight with these fellows, as in, they would on average perpetrate 10% less crimes/human rights violations, then I’d go your way. Since I don’t see that happening, I am going to stick with moral intutition that it is better, ex ante, to have a system that punishes these bastards, rather than one that coddles them. I would be happier if we lived in a world where we make all deontological choices and they’d always be good choices, but we don’t — so I would rather take a hardline toward dictators, and if I have to make one “iffy” decision (from a deontological perspective) it would be to lie sometimes to dictators.

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