Is There Anything Dictators Can't Get Away With These Days?

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Feb. 18 2014 12:05 PM

A Good Time for Dictators

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Photo by KNS/AFP/Getty Images

A new U.N. report on human rights violations in North Korea compares conditions in the country to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and details crimes against humanity within the country’s vast labor camps, including “systematic extermination, torture, rape, forced abortions and starvation.” The panel recommends the prosecution of the country’s top leaders by the International Criminal Court, though as long as ally China holds a veto on the Security Council, this is extremely unlikely.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland takes note of the likelihood of international inaction in response to the report, along with similarly chilling recent reports out of Syria, and argues that with China and Russia running interference for their autocratic allies and U.S. and European publics extremely weary of military intervention, today is “a good time to be a dictator, a butcher or the torturing head of a brutal regime. The world will let you carry on killing – even when it knows exactly what is happening.”

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It’s certainly a question worth considering during an Olympic Games held in a country that is both committing grave human rights abuses at home and abetting far worse crimes abroad. This is something of a banner month for dictatorial impunity.

I’d argue, though, that North Korea may not be the most useful example here. The Hermit Kingdom is something of an outlier in the modern world as a country that is both brutal to its citizens and for the most part unconcerned with achieving any sort of international respectability. It’s even willing to directly provoke its most important international backer. Most countries, even those with harsh dictatorships, probably don’t look at North Korea’s international isolation and see a model to follow. 

Even Bashar al-Assad, while he is more than willing to drop barrels full of nails and rebar on his own people to maintain his grip on power, would—in the world of his choosing—probably much rather be munching canapés at Davos talking about his country’s economic growth along with his region’s more respectable autocrats.

A better example of a comfortable autocrat might be Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. Uganda certainly isn’t even remotely close to North Korea when it comes to human rights abuses, but as Sam Sturgis of McClatchy writes today, the U.S. is extremely unlikely to put any pressure on the country’s government over harsh new laws targeting gays and lesbians and the unwelcome presence of its troops in South Sudan—not to mention its flawed elections and crackdowns on freedom of expression—thanks to the long-standing security partnership between the two countries.

"Beginning in the 1990s, the United States has built the capacity of Museveni’s Uganda People’s Defence Force so it could be counted on to help stabilize difficult situations throughout Central and East Africa," Sturgis writes. Past collaborations have included operations against al-Shabab in Somalia and the hunt for Joseph Kony.

Again, the conditions on the ground aren’t in any way equivalent, but the Musevenis of the world—ncreasingly autocratic but strategically useful to global superpowers—may be better examples of how to be a dictator in today's world than the Kim Jong-uns.