Governance and politics

Dictating an end to atrocities in non-democratic regimes

Tilburg University

While several risk factors have been identified as preconditions for the perpetration of atrocities, the role of a non-democratic leader may be the deciding factor as to whether these preconditions will ultimately lead to violence. Maartje Weerdesteijn of Tilburg University argues that interventions need to consider the role of the dictator, yet simultaneously be aware of the differences between them. This blog post has been inspired by the interactive brainstorm ‘Innovative thinking on strategic approaches to conflict management’, which was organized by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law in The Hague on 7 October.

Photo credit: Berlin Wall art / Mark Healey via Flickr.

As Europe tries to come to terms with its refugee crisis, international attention is returning to strategies that counteract atrocities and war that causes many people to flee. One way to approach prevention, mitigation and stopping internal wars and mass atrocities that so often form part of them is to think about what initially caused them. Significant research has been done on this topic and several important risk factors and preconditions have been identified. Most prominently a history of violence, social divisions in society, difficult living conditions such as economic, political crises or war, and the non-democratic nature of the regime have been identified as important risk factors. This blog post addresses the role of the non-democratic nature of the regime, especially its leader, in instigating or aggravating conflict and mass atrocities.

While atrocities can be perpetrated by non-state actors, they are frequently facilitated, organized or instigated by states or state-like organizations such as ISIS. The leader of the non-democratic state or state-like organization is particularly important because he can use existing preconditions to transform a society that is at risk for the perpetration of atrocities into one in which atrocities might actually occur. The leader can legitimize and justify the perpetration of atrocities and often uses a particular ideology to do so. This belief system utilizes existing cultural myths and stories and the non-democratic leaders (or dictators) can manipulate historical narratives in such a way that old enemies and events are given contemporary relevance. Antagonisms between groups are often enhanced and the out-group can be dehumanized. When combined with difficult living conditions, the out-group is often blamed for society’s woes. In Nazi Germany for instance, Jews were blamed for losing World War Iand for the economic hardships that later followed.

In addition, non-democratic leaders are crucial in establishing the institutions through which atrocities can be perpetrated. While atrocities are often described as ‘collective crimes’ as characterized by the involvement of many people, the most gruesome violence is usually perpetrated by a relatively small group of individuals. These groups tend to have only informal links to the government even though they often are in close cooperation with each other. Even in Rwanda where the genocide was characterized by the widespread participation in the killing process, a small group called the Interahamwe took the lead in the killing.

Since dictators play such a crucial part in the perpetration of atrocities in many countries and situations, the international community should focus on the role of the dictator in efforts to end atrocities. When the international community seeks to end atrocities, success often depends on the dictatorial leader and whether he buckles under pressure or eventually accommodates the wishes of other countries or the international community. The international community should therefore take into account the personal characteristics of the leader when devising their response. A non-democratic leader is relatively unconstrained in comparison to democratic leaders that have to answer to their parliaments and constituents. As a result, their personal idiosyncrasies will have more impact on the policy of the country they lead and on the prospect of peace or the termination of cruelties.

What is often forgotten is that not all dictators are alike and not all of them believe in the ideology they will proclaim. While some will set out to achieve a utopian vision of society, others will merely use the ideology instrumentally to spread hatred and legitimize crimes. In his seminal book ‘Modern Tyrants’, Daniel Chirot created a map of dictators ranging from ideological rulers acting on the basis of ‘extreme certitude’ to dictators that were guided by ‘pragmatism’. The former includes Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler and Ceausescu, while on the pragmatic side Bokassa and Idi Amin were mentioned.

As some leaders are more pragmatic than others, dictatorial leaders will not be responsive in equal measure to threats and challenges posed by the international community. The differences among dictators and how this impacts the choices they make deserves further research that might be crucial in developing a more effective approach to end atrocities when they occur in non-democratic regimes. Knowing how responsive a dictator is and knowing when particular measures are unlikely to work might save time and therefore possibly lives when devising policies to stop or mitigate the perpetration of international crimes.

To read more, you can read the open access article: M. Weerdesteijn (2015). ‘Stopping Mass Atrocities: Targeting the Dictator’. Politics and Governance 3.3. pp. 53-66

Join the conversation

This blog post is part of an online continuation of the conversation started at the Interactive Brainstorm ‘Innovative thinking on strategic approaches to conflict management’, held on 7 October 2015 in the Hague. The Platform and The Broker are organizing a series of online blog posts on this topic, in order to inform the Platform’s broader network about the discussions that have taken place during the event, and to invite you to join the conversation.

This series of blog posts revolves around innovative ideas on how to improve current conflict response mechanisms, ranging from prevention to reaction to rebuilding.

Photo credit: Berlin Wall art / Mark Healey via Flickr.

Join our network

Login or register for free to get all access to our network publications. Members can also connect and discuss with other members. Participate in our network.