Intermestic Dynamics of Power Transitions in Dictatorships

In the face of domestic opposition, a dictator accountable for human rights violations is unlikely to relinquish power due to fears of domestic punishment and international prosecution. What if the domestic opposition has also caused unspeakable civilian casualties? This would present an opportunity for strategic adjustments to a dictator’s decision equation, given the presence of international justice regimes—for example, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations tribunals—that investigate and prosecute such atrocities. In a recent paper, political scientists Monika Nalepa and Emilia Powell seek to explain how domestic opposition and international justice regimes mediate the likelihood of a dictator’s resignation.

Nalepa and Powell first set a theoretical threshold level for a dictator’s guilt as a precondition for international justice regimes to intervene; the threshold can vary according to the number of victims as well as the intention and severity of crimes committed. They then focused on dictators who had perpetrated egregious crimes, such as purges, genocide, and wartime violence. The authors theorized that the degree to which domestic opposition committed violence had a bearing on a dictator’s exit from office, considering the presence of an international tribunal represented by the ICC. Specifically, the authors posited that the ICC was more effective at inducing a peaceful power transition when both the dictator and the opposition had committed violence.

The authors additionally theorized that the strength of the ICC was affected by whether a state and its neighboring states had ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC; the more states that had ratified the Rome Statute, the stronger the ICC intervention. The authors expected that the presence of a strong ICC equipped with a zero-tolerance policy for crimes against humanity would significantly undermine the credibility and feasibility of any amnesty accommodations between the dictator and the domestic opposition. Under a weak ICC, conversely, both a dictator and his opposition implicated in horrific human rights violations might get impunity from crimes and reach an amnesty deal in exchange for the dictator’s decision to step down.

Table 1. Theoretical Expectations about Atrocious Dictator’s Decision Making in Power Transitions

The authors’ predictions are shown in Table 1. If the ICC is strong, and if the opposition has not engaged in significant crimes against humanity, the culpable dictator will likely stay in office because he, not the opposition, is subject to prosecution from international justice regimes, and the innocent opposition is more likely to renege on its amnesty commitments under the strong ICC. Obviously, a strong ICC makes domestic amnesty commitments less achievable. Thus, even if the opposition has engaged in gruesome crimes against humanity, the dictator is unlikely to be willing to step down because a strong ICC would prosecute both guilty sides.

If the ICC is weak, and if the opposition has not engaged in significant crimes against humanity, the culpable dictator will likely not relinquish his authority because international justice regimes tend to lean against the guilty side, and amnesty commitments made by an innocent opposition are unlikely to be considered credible. If the opposition has engaged in severe crimes against humanity, however, the dictator will be more likely to consider a step-down bargain in exchange for amnesty because amnesty commitments are more credible in that scenario. This is due to the fact that the villainous opposition would also be sanctioned by international justice regimes should it fail to deliver on its commitment.

Based on their theoretical expectations, the authors hypothesized that under a strong ICC, the extent to which the opposition has engaged in violence has little to no effect on the dictator’s likelihood of leaving office, and that under a weak ICC regime, the more crimes the opposition has engaged in, the more likely the dictator is to step down from office. Using 1998–2007 cross-national time-series data, the authors tested whether the degree of the opposition’s culpability and the strength of the ICC, individually and jointly, affected a dictator’s decisions on power transitions. The authors additionally considered factors that might influence a dictator’s decision, such as dictator’s culpability, military expenditures, natural resources, previous regime changes, and leader characteristics.

With all other factors discussed held constant, the findings corroborated the authors’ hypotheses: under a weak ICC regime, the probability that a culpable dictator transitions out of his office increases from around 50 percent to over 90 percent as the number of civilian deaths resulting from a violent domestic opposition rises from 0 to 12,623. Furthermore, under a strong ICC, the number of civilian deaths due to domestic opposition had almost no effect on the probability of a culpable dictator stepping down; the predicted probabilities of autocratic resignation remain only slightly above zero percent. The authors concluded that a despotic dictator has almost no chance of resigning under a strong ICC.

The study by Nalepa and Powell indicates that impact of the ICC—whether the ICC encourages or discourages a dictator’s resignation—may be contingent upon the extent of the opposition’s human rights violations. The authors note an interesting paradoxical revelation that an international organization meant to deter human rights offenders may actually discourage peaceful power transitions in some dictatorships—as a powerful ICC regime can deter a dictator’s decision to resign. In this sense, the authors also note that special attention needs to be given to the magnitude of international judicial bodies and the repercussions of increasing the number of international courts.

Article source: Nalepa, Monika, and Emilia Powell. “The Role of Domestic Opposition and International Justice Regimes in Peaceful Transitions of Power.Journal of Conflict Resolution 60, no. 7. (2016): 1191-1218.

Featured photo: cc/(STRINGERimage, photo ID: 518661856, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook (MPP '18) is a staff writer for Law & Politics. He is interested in political economy, civil-military relations, and electoral politics.

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