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Golden Handcuffs: Getting Dictators To Exit

A proposal for a three-tiered system for bringing autocratic rule to a close – and reforming the ICC.

February 25, 2017

A proposal for a three-tiered system for bringing autocratic rule to a close – and reforming the ICC.

Is this the new “Golden Rule” of international politics: What happens to a leader who abused power after he or she leaves power depends a lot on where they ruled?

On one side of the ledger, you will find that, since 1989, not a single leader in Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Australia has been imprisoned, killed or forced into exile.

World out of balance?

For leaders in the rest of the world, the risks are different: Leaving office is perilous. In non-Western countries, 6.5% of rulers leaving power since 1989 have found a new home in a jail cell — and 2% have been killed.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the odds are even worse. Since the end of the Cold War, 23% of deposed African rulers were forced into exile; around 8% were jailed; and 5% were killed.

Put differently, more than one in three Sub- Saharan leaders can expect not to be allowed to return home after leaving office, because they are killed, jailed, or banished from the country they formerly ruled.

Russian roulette for rulers

Let’s think about that. For an African leader, losing power is like playing Russian roulette with two loaded chambers and four empty ones.

If they happen to pull the trigger on the first or second chamber in the barrel, they will either never go home, or lose their freedom, or even die.

That risk creates a strong incentive for leaders to cling to power rather than taking any chances. Ruthless repression becomes rational.

Recent scholarship has shown that countries that punish their leaders after they step down are more likely to succumb to a failed transition to democracy, a reversal of fortunes that ends right back at square one: with an authoritarian despot.

Dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats often abuse their office, steal from public coffers and violate human rights. They often deserve to be punished.

But, although it pains me to say it – and this is the cue for liberal idealists to roll their eyes – sometimes, punishing a leader is the worse of two evils.

Avoiding moral hazard

However, a get-out-of-jail-free card cannot be given to just anyone and creates a moral hazard.

If ruthless leaders around the world assume that they can commit any number of horrendous crimes and then just hop on an all-expenses-paid charter jet to a seaside villa with at least tens of millions of dollars waiting for them in a Swiss bank account, the world will become an even more bloody and violent place than it already is.

A three-tiered system

I can imagine a three-tiered system that would allow for more flexible transfers of power for the low- and mid-range despots, while maintaining International Criminal Court prosecutions for the worst of the worst.

1. At the lowest level would be the approach taken with 1990s Haitian junta leader Raoul Cédras, the golden parachute: Hold your nose, sign a deal (essentially a payoff to the leader and perhaps his followers), and the leader gets away with it but quits power. It should be reserved for corrupt despots who (unlike Cédras) didn’t viciously slaughter thousands.

In Africa, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation already offers this approach, providing a $5 million “prize” for leaders that peacefully transfer power to a successor after losing an election or reaching the end of their constitutionally mandated term limit. (Unfortunately, the prize usually goes unclaimed.)

2. Above the golden parachute would be the mid-level approach—the one that should have been used for Cédras — or what I call “the golden handcuffs.”

Cédras was in a weak bargaining position when he was escorted out – and he was a legitimately bad guy. The United States should have guaranteed his safety, but forced him to agree to an asset forfeiture and a reasonably long period of house arrest.

This would have been enough to make him feel punished but not enough to deter him from signing the deal.

3. International Criminal Court prosecutions should still be used as a major deterrent.

However, this option would be reserved for war criminals, perpetrators of genocide, and others whose actions are so abhorrent that no level of utilitarian commitment can absolve the injustice of letting them go unpunished.

These are the worst of the worst, and the “moral hazard” of letting them get away with their crimes is far more devastating than any failed transition could be, as it could spark copycats in presidential palaces around the globe.

The ICC threshold and the Ivory Coast experience

In this vein, Laurent Gbagbo – who was arrested by a French intervention force and taken to the ICC after failing to relinquish power amid post-election violence – is an interesting case.

The civil war that he helped spark resulted in the deaths of 3,000 Ivoirians, but fighters on both sides committed atrocities.

However, there seems to be only tenuous evidence that Gbagbo personally authorized the types of brutality that his soldiers executed. Likewise, there is no “smoking gun” evidence that his counterpart, Alassane Ouattara, authorized the atrocities that his rebels committed.

Gbabgo may be facing trial for war crimes, but it’s worth debating where the threshold should be for ICC prosecution. Certainly, a fair global ranking of despots and dictators would not have Gbagbo anywhere near the top of the “bad guy” list.

ICC prosecution should therefore be carefully weighed against the potential benefits of plucking a leader from power on a chartered flight to safety and security.

Ultimately, it’s a decision that should be made democratically by a community of nations, but a re-calibration does need to take place.

The key element: Uncertainty

A three-tiered system would have another key advantage. The international community would have the opportunity to offer the golden parachute, the golden handcuffs, or a one-way ticket to The Hague at their discretion.

The resulting uncertainty – which is the measure to be applied? — is an advantage, because it would mean that despots would still fear the consequences of their actions.

Diplomats, however, would nonetheless retain the flexibility to prioritize stability for smaller and medium-sized fish in the international pond of counterfeit democrats.

Just as with the Cédras deal in Haiti, the security and safety guarantee should be predicated on a peaceful transfer of power with the aim of holding quick but credible elections.

Shackle dictators, not their people

If the golden handcuffs are offered wisely, they can shackle irresponsible rulers rather than shackling their people with indefinite authoritarianism.

If Western governments think about the long term, they will be less prone to chasing short-termist and ultimately counterproductive attempts to impose a sense of righteous justice, bringing the country down in the process.

The key is changing the leader’s political calculation. The safety and security of exile must seem more enticing than the inevitable ruthlessness that must continue for them to remain in power.

However, as with the Rwandan genocide, or Slobodan Milosevic’s “ethnic cleansing,” or Bashar al-Assad’s reckless barrel bombing of civilian populations, eventually horrible leaders arrive at a point of no return where a golden parachute wouldn’t fly under the weight of their crimes.

Changing the calculus

Granted, there may be little room to use rational argument to convince some leaders to step down.

But in a world where leaving office is like playing Russian roulette for many of the world’s leaders, voluntary and democratic transfers of power will not start to make rational sense until the costs of losing office are lowered considerably.

Twenty-seven current heads of state have been in power for more than 15 years. Thirteen of them have been in power for at least twenty-five; they ruled when George H.W. Bush was president and the Soviet Union still existed.

Among those individuals, there are quite a few candidates for whom the deliberations presented above are of great personal interst as they make the calculations about their political future.

Editor’s note: This feature is adapted from “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy” (C. Hurst & Co Publishers, 2016)


For an African leader, losing power is like playing Russian roulette with two loaded chambers and four empty ones.

The safety of exile must seem more enticing than the ruthlessness that must continue for dictators to remain in power.

The golden handcuffs offered wisely can shackle irresponsible rulers rather than shackling their people with authoritarianism.