Why Not Assassinate Mugabe? Why Not To.

17 July 2008, 0130 EDT

Due to more than one misinterpretation of the original version of this post, I have altered the title and extended / clarified the argument, which now reads as follows:

In the wake of Mugabe’s “re-election,” political violence in the country is on the increase. Jake Farr Wharton has a modest proposal:

“Mugabe’s forces violently bullied and intimidated the people of Zimbabwe into a second election. Last week, Tsvangiri withdrew his candidacy, siting that he could not stand for president when anyone who voted for him, was doing so at a very real risk to their families lives. As such, Mugabe ran unopposed and won. The many people he had killed, maimed, imprisoned, held hostage and the villages he had destroyed devastatingly culminated in a win for him. The violent intimidation worked.

Where is the UN when they are actually needed? Where is the African Union when they are actually needed? End this man in the only way he knows how, assassinate him. Let it be done and hold a new election, one overseen by the UN and African Union.”

There are moral arguments to be made here. Politicians whose thugs burn little boys alive because their father supports the opposition don’t deserve the protection of sovereign immunity. And Ward Thomas has made a convincing case that the norm against assassinating heads of state has little ethical basis, since it protects the guiltiest civilians while often resulting in protracted wars that cost the lives of the most innocent or, at best (when wars are fought professionally) of soldiers who have often been conscripted. Besides, the CIA would no doubt dispatch him more humanely than his own people ultimately will… recall the untimely end of Samuel Doe, former President of Liberia.

So why not assassinate Mugabe? At Elected Swineherd, Empedocles harbors doubts on pragmatic, rather than moral grounds:

“Such an operation would likely leave an open door for widespread ethnic violence in its wake. What is needed instead is a UN or SADC (South African Development Council) peacekeeping deployment to coordinate humanitarian aid and a slow political transition.”

Hmm, s/he’s got a point there. The Rwandan genocide was tipped off by the apparent assassination of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, after which the Tutsi population of the country was scape-goated, providing a pretext for root-and-branch massacres. Though, is Zimbabwe Rwanda? Or is it early Nazi Germany, where the stage is not yet set for full-blown genocide but the leadership has the power and political will to do so if not removed? And a peacekeeping mission? One was in place in Rwanda in April 1994.

[Even if these pragmatic concerns and potential alternatives are overblown, there is still an argument on ethical grounds to counter Wharton’s idea and Thomas’ ethical analysis. It is this: two wrongs don’t make a right. Promoting rule of law and human rights means no extrajudicial executions; the accused should be indicted, arrested, held, tried and only punished if they are found guilty. In theory, this standard should be no less true for statesmen and women than for the citizens we wish leaders like Mugabe would allow to enjoy these same rights. The problem with moral absolutism, some will say, is that it rarely is a recipe for proper statecraft.]

Perhaps the best (though perhaps also the worst) reason why not to go down this road is a self-interested one: to preserve the anti-assassination norm itself, which functions to protect the interests of the great powers, including the US, whose leaders are likeliest to be the targets of such attacks in the future; [and to protect the stability of the international rule-sets that have precluded great power war for sixty years.]

Which still begs the question of what should be done [to help the people of Zimbabwe].