Responding to Tyranny

A number of governments around the world are tyrannies, oppressing the people they rule, violating human rights, and torturing and murdering those who disagree with them. The existence of such governments is not disputed, nor is their evil. There is, however, some debate over just which governments are tyrannies, and substantial debate over what should be done. I'm not going to address the question of which governments are tyrannies here; apart from anything else, I don't think that, in general, I have enough information to make an informed judgement. Instead, I want to look at what should be done.

My main concern is with what actions are ethical, in a real world, but political possibility must also be taken into account. This is not the same as political plausibility; past record suggests that the most politically plausible response to tyranny is to give the tyrant lots of money and weapons.


One possible response to tyranny is war. Invade the country, overthrow the tyrant, and install a new government. I believe that this is not an ethical response, for a number of reasons.

First, it doesn't seem to work very well. Look at Afghanistan and Iraq, where the government installed by the invaders is either struggling (Afghanistan) or virtually non-existent (Iraq). Germany and Japan, after World War II, were notable success stories, but I am hard-pressed to think of more recent examples.

Second, the war does a great deal of damage to the people who were suffering under the tyrant. The invasion of Iraq killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, destroyed homes, and wrecked civilian infrastructure. And this in a war which tried to keep such damage as low as possible. A tyrant has to be very bad, and very stable, for invasion to be a preferable option.

Third, we might be wrong. The government that looks tyrannical to us might be perfectly acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the people of the country. The 'rigged' elections might be genuine. It is very hard to know from outside whether a country really is a tyranny. There have been documented cases of torture by law enforcement in the UK and USA, and there are small groups in both countries who claim that the government oppresses them. As I live in the UK, I am confident that it is not a tyranny, and the USA certainly doesn't look like one when I visit, but by carefully selecting the evidence I could make both countries sound highly oppressive. If we are wrong, and the country is not a tyranny, then invading is clearly wrong.

Finally, where do we draw the line? Can we invade because we disagree with a country's economic policies? Because they won't let our big companies buy their utilities systems? Because they were rude about our head of state? Because we disagree with their criminal laws? The answer to the question matters because of just how bad the consequences of an invasion are.


Trade sanctions are another popular way to deal with tyrants. Again, in general, I do not think that they are ethical.

In this case, there is one main reason. Trade sanctions overwhelmingly hit the ordinary citizens of the country, the ones who are suffering under the tyrant. Somehow, the upper levels of the government never seem to be short of food.

In addition, trade sanctions do not seem to be terribly effective. Cuba has been embargoed by the USA for decades, but the government is still there. Of course, this might be because it isn't really a tyranny, in which case this is a point in favour of sanctions: there would be less risk in applying them, because if we are wrong, they won't work. However, I can't think of any governments which have fallen due to trade sanctions.

Now, some aspects of trade sanctions do seem to be ethical. We shouldn't sell weapons to regimes we believe to be tyrannical. Nor should we sell policing equipment, or similar goods which would be used in repression. We shouldn't let the tyrants have bank accounts in our country, and we should certainly arrest them if they happen to set foot here. But these sorts of sanctions are very limited.

A final problem with sanctions is that they only really work if everyone agrees that they should be applied. Otherwise, the dissenting countries simply take up the slack in trade.

Diplomatic Protest

There is nothing wrong with diplomatic protest. Indeed, it seems compulsory. If we think a country is tyrannical then we should protest to the government, reduce diplomatic contact, and avoid making state visits.

The problem with diplomatic protests is that they seem to completely ineffective. Tyrants can simply ignore other countries saying 'Please don't do that'. Indeed, tyrants are very good at ignoring complaints; it goes with the job.

Easy Asylum

So, that's enough of the negative. I also want to present a positive idea.

In essence, it is very simple. Any citizen of a tyrannically governed country should be entitled to a permanent work and residence visa for our country. They should be allowed to claim this visa at any embassy, and embassies should be erected as close to the border with the tyrannically governed country as possible.

The ethical benefits of this position are manifold. First, suppose that we are wrong, and the country is not tyrannical at all. In that case, the inhabitants will not, on the whole, want to leave. There will be no flood of emigrants, and the lives of the typical inhabitants of the country will not have been rendered in any way worse.

Second, it directly helps the people who are suffering from a tyranny, by providing somewhere for them to run to. If the tyrant tries, he can probably make escape difficult, but at least the citizens can know that if they can get out, they will not be sent back.

Third, it does no damage to the people of the country. If the tyrant does not want to let people out, he won't do so no matter what the policy of other countries may be.

There are also a couple of practical advantages. First, losing the most resourceful members of a population can't be good for a tyranny. People are unlikely to voluntarily immigrate, at least not in any numbers, and any country forcibly shipping people to a tyranny would count as a tyranny itself.

Second, this form of response is effective even if no other countries decide to go along with it. Only one country needs to offer a haven for people to be able to escape. There is no need to build international consensus, as the country offering asylum is not doing anything that violates, or even pushes the edges of, international law. It will be more effective the more countries offer a safe harbour, but politicians could have the courage of their convictions without risking criminality.

What's New?

It might seem that this proposal offers little beyond the current system of offering asylum to refugees. And, in fact, that might be the case; I am not familiar with the details of immigration law, so my beliefs are based on what is reported about immigration cases. On that basis, I think there are a number of important differences. One is a difference of attitude, while the others are practical distinctions.

The difference is attitude is perhaps the most important. Instead of reluctantly letting in those people who can rigorously prove that they will be tortured if they go back home, the idea is to allow any citizen of the tyranny to come to stay, and to make it as easy for them as possible. The policy does not merely aim to provide a refuge for those who flee tyranny; it aims to undermine the tyranny in its own country. Thus, people who were doing quite well under the tyranny and were certainly under no immediate threat are just as welcome as those at risk of execution. Indeed, with regard to the aim of undermining the tyranny, those who are at little risk of immediate harm should be even more welcome, because it is people like that who keep the machinery of society working. The loss of all the malcontents and dissenters is, if anything, likely to strengthen a tyrant.

The practical distinctions flow from the difference of attitude. First, the aim would be to make it as easy as possible for someone to claim asylum. Certainly, they would not be required to do so within twenty four hours of landing, nor would they be forced to travel 'illegally' to Britain in order to do so. Building new embassies near the border would be one way of expressing that, as would stationing British officials at foreign airports to take asylum applications, and then, in both cases, transporting the refugees to England at government expense.

Second, the emphasis would not be on excluding possible cheats, but on making sure that no refugee from the tyranny was turned away. That changes the whole emphasis of the screening procedure, in that possession of an identity card from the tyranny would be enough to secure a permanent visa. Other evidence would also have to be admitted, and people given the benefit of the doubt.

Third, there would be no need to show immediate danger back home. Indeed, the system positively wants middle managers from the tyrant's bureaucracy to come, because if they all leave the system will start to implode under its own weight. Of course, actual criminals would still be liable to prosecution (see Exploitable, as an objection below), but people who, for example, co-ordinated supplies to the armed forces would not, much less tax collectors or power grid managers.

It is an intended effect of the system that there would be a much higher flow of refugees than there is from any country at present. This, of course, is an aspect that some will find objectionable, which brings us to possible objections to the scheme.


There are a number of possible objections to such a policy, from claims that it will be ineffective to fears that it would be politically impossible.


A proper tyrant would, surely, be able to keep his people within the country. If necessary, he can put minefields and razor wire along all the borders. He can certainly threaten the families of anyone who leaves, and make people reluctant to go.

It is true that a tyrant could make it very difficult to get out, but this requires resources. In particular, borders must be guarded, and that needs repression resources that he then cannot use on the citizens. If the opposed state is more powerful than the tyrant, it could break holes in the border defences every so often, although as an attack that would need international approval. Still, as long as the attack was restricted to making holes for the county's population to leave, it would be easier to get approval.

On the other hand, even if this strategy were completely ineffective, it would be no less effective than sanctions seem to be. The ethical problems with war mean that invading to overthrow the tyrant does not seem to be an available option, at least in most cases, which leaves this as the best of a set of bad options.

Still, I incline to optimism. I think that losing the best and brightest would undermine any tyranny, and that the measures needed to retain them would necessarily involve a lessening of oppression.


The system might be exploited by those who are not supposed to benefit from it. There are two main kinds of abuse: high-ranking members of the tyrannical regime might try to leave, and citizens of other countries might lie about their origins in order to get in.

These are certainly potential problems. However, it is more important to make it easy for genuine refugees than to stop those who might abuse the privilege. Anyone who can present prima facie evidence that they are a citizen of the tyranny should be allowed in and granted the visa. Lying on your visa application is reasonable grounds for deportation, so citizens of other countries can be thrown out when they are discovered.

Members of the regime may have committed criminal offences while in that position. In that case, they can be prosecuted here. The scheme is to grant residence and working rights, not to grant immunity from prosecution. Indeed, it might be a lot easier to bring members of the regime to justice after they sneak into our country.

Politically Difficult

It is certainly true that this would be a politically difficult proposal at the moment, given the level of opposition to asylum seekers in the British tabloid press. That might change by itself, but even if it does not, there are other ways to sell this to the population.

First, as contrasted to trade sanctions, easy asylum promises economic benefits to us, as the motivated workers from the tyranny come and contribute to our economy. There might be initial costs, but in the long term they are bound to be overcome by the labour and productivity of the immigrants.

Second, while there will be costs, they will almost certainly be less than the costs of, say, invading Iraq. Certainly, far fewer British people will be killed; indeed, it is hard to see how this scheme could result in any British deaths. Providing every refugee with English education and benefits would still be cheaper than shipping an army to the Gulf. The question to put to the British people is this: would they rather pay to kill people, or to help them to a better life? Refugees are allowed to enter the country anyway, so reducing the number of hoops through which they must jump will save money in at least one respect, as fewer officials will be needed to administer the system. And it is independently desirable to encourage the British people to take a more positive view of immigration.


There is also a practical worry. If millions of people leave a tyranny and come to Britain, how will we feed, house, and employ these multitudes? First, I think this worry is based on a false, and arrogant, assumption: that anyone who could would want to come to Britain. Some will, certainly, but others will have a greater loyalty to their homeland, and will only leave if under great duress. Still, suppose that the country in question is large, so that one percent of the population is pushing ten million souls. One percent leaving a tyranny is not implausible, and it is true that Britain would have trouble accommodating ten million extra people.

This is a real problem. Nevertheless, it seems preferable to facing the problems caused by an invasion, which involve the deaths of many people, both British and foreign.


Is this a good way to deal with tyranny? It is impossible to know without trying it, but it certainly has promise. Most importantly, it seems very hard to do damage to innocent citizens of an evil regime by taking this tack. That alone, it seems to me, is a very strong recommendation of this plan.

David Chart
16 July 2003
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