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The dictator in his mousetrap

We are witnessing an opportunity for the defenders of freedom – and not the tyrants – to set the agenda

Opponents of dictator Augusto Pinochet protest outside the Chilean Supreme Court.
Opponents of dictator Augusto Pinochet protest outside the Chilean Supreme Court.

Early in his presidency, in 2000, Putin gave a long televised interview. He spoke of his vision for the future of Russia, shared memories of his youth and reflected on what he had experienced, including a lesson he’d learned from a rat. When he was very young, Putin and his parents lived in a small apartment in a run-down building in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) that, among other problems, was infested with rats. The young Putin used to chase them with a stick. “There, I received a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered,’” Putin said in the interview. And added: “Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. Now the rat was chasing me. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door on its nose.”

Thus, from an early age, Putin understood that a cornered animal can be dangerous. It’s a lesson we should all heed. But what if instead of being cornered, it gets caught in a trap?

A typical mousetrap consists of a box in which there is a door that the mouse can enter. Inside, there is a mechanism tripped by a piece of cheese. By taking the cheese, the mouse triggers a spring that shuts the trap door and leaves it stuck inside. It’s trapped. The same thing happens to contemporary dictators. They enter the presidential palace attracted by the cheese – which in this case is power – and before they know it they are trapped there. If they leave power, they endanger their freedom or even their lives, as well as those of their relatives and accomplices. Their high position also allows them to better preserve the enormous fortunes that have been stolen. Naturally, dictators have no desire to give up power.

The metaphorical mousetrap that traps dictators in power illustrates one of the great challenges of today’s world. What should be the fate of deposed dictators? In the past, those who weren’t killed or imprisoned and managed to escape with their ill-gotten loot, often wound up in idyllic places frequented by European royalty. Now tyrants who lose power end up in Europe, but not in Monaco or Biarritz, but rather in the International Criminal Court of The Hague.

Now tyrants who lose power end up in Europe, but not in Monaco or Biarritz, but rather in the International Criminal Court of The Hague

The impunity enjoyed by a number of earlier dictators disappeared when Chile’s former president, Augusto Pinochet, was arrested while visiting London in 1998. This move was an expression of the new human rights doctrine of “universal jurisdiction.” It marked the beginning of a new era of accountability for serious human rights violations. For a dictator like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, for example, resigning means going to jail. Vladimir Putin now faces a similar predicament.

Naturally, this reality makes dictators even more reluctant to give up power. They have no reason to believe that the immunity they may be promised by other governments will last. Circumstances, alliances and governments change, and new rulers may decide that they are not bound by the commitments of their predecessors. For these dictators, the only reliable government is the one they preside over and the only armed forces that will defend them are the ones they command.

This is one of the thorniest problems of our time. Should an agreement be sought with dictators responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people? Or should ethics, justice and geopolitics oblige us to try to overthrow these dictators?

There are no easy answers. How many deaths would be avoided if a ceasefire were reached in Ukraine? Is it acceptable to make a deal with Putin to withdraw his troops in exchange for agreeing to some of his demands? For many, this would be immoral; they argue the only acceptable outcome is for Putin to lose power. Others maintain that the priority is to stop the killing of innocent civilians.

There are no obvious answers to these questions. But at least today we know that the answers can be shaped by countries where democracy reigns. Of all the horrible news that Putin’s invasion has brought, there is a piece of good news that should give us hope: democracies have shown that they can work in concert and collectively confront the ills that affect the planet. This is an opportunity for the defenders of liberty to set the agenda instead of the tyrants.

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