Palmer Advocates Ousting World's Dictators Through Nonviolent Methods

December 3, 2003

Ambassador Mark Palmer presented a plan for ridding the world of dictators by 2025.

Georgia's “rose revolution”—the peaceful ousting in November of Eduard Shevardnadze, leader of the former Soviet republic—is a prime example that dictatorships can be dissolved through nonviolent means, said Ambassador Mark Palmer, who spoke at the Law School Dec. 1 about his new book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025. Palmer—an experienced diplomat who served in policy positions in the State Department during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and first Bush administrations—helped launch the National Endowment for Democracy, served as a speech writer for six secretaries of state (including Henry Kissinger) and three presidents, and helped the current Bush administration craft the recently announced policy that the United States will no longer support Middle East dictators or governments that won't take steps toward democracy.

By Palmer's count there are 43 remaining dictators in the world—some have a tenuous hold on power, such as Iran 's Ayatollah Khamenei, while others appear stronger than ever. “They could make this century even bloodier than the last one,” Palmer said. Dictators cause most of the world's national security problems, as well as most violent deaths, in part because their repressive societies breed or fund terrorism, he alleged. He noted that three times as many people were killed by their own leaders than in war during the last century. Without dictators there would likely be no war, less terrorism, more economic growth, and more freedom, especially for women.

“The question in my mind is, how do you get there?” he asked. In the last 30 years, half of the world's dictators have been ousted without a shot being fired, he said, but people aren't taking nonviolent methods seriously as a solution. The rose revolution was carried out by unarmed dissidents (bearing roses) who were trained by students from Belgrade—young Serbs who used the same methods to oust former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Palmer said. The Georgian dissidents convinced security forces not to attack their protest of corrupt parliamentary elections.

The United States' vague foreign policy goals could be clarified by focusing on giving corrupt governments the boot—peacefully. “There has to be something that people can rally around, a moral vision,” he said, noting that the Cold War era offered the ideal spread of democracy and defeat of communism.

To create a coalition against dictatorships, the Community of Democracies, a non-governmental organization that organized 106 democracies worldwide for its first meeting in 2000, should be transformed into a political alliance, and NATO should include all democracies in the world—not just Europe, he said. Together they could provide regional programs, on-call forces for security contingencies, and caucuses within existing international organizations.

Furthermore, “I think dictatorships by themselves should be considered a crime against humanity and be prosecuted.” Palmer proposed making violating the laws of your own country against international law, with violations judged by an international tribunal.

Most importantly, we should help non-governmental democrats and other dissidents get organized within countries, he said. Governments are not going to enact change, so we should recognize NGO democrats within countries ruled by dictators as the legitimate voice of the people.

Palmer, who lived for 11 years in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Hungary under the Communists as a student and diplomat, praised serving dissidents in closed countries. As the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, he helped persuade its last dictator to leave power. He cited others in the Foreign Service who helped overturn dictators in Chile and Kenya.

Dissidents may feel afraid and alone in countries ruled by oppressive leaders. “The best thing for people who are afraid and alone is to let them know they're not alone,” he said, adding that ambassadors should give weekly radio talks and help support dissidents by smuggling in printing presses, for example.

Palmer—also a venture capitalist and co-founder of Central European Media Enterprises, which launched the first national independent television stations in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Ukraine—also said it was important to support independent radio and television in such countries, as ways of opening them to the world and democracies. He said Americans should support the efforts of, for example, a Farsi-language radio station in Los Angeles that attempts to broadcast to Iran, but lacks the range for clear transmission.

Charity foundations often think supporting dissidents is “too political,” and many corporations are often in league with dictators to secure business deals, so finding funds to support dissidents is difficult. He noted that we have a number of multinational institutions devoted to economic development, such as the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, which can make demands of countries, but no such political organization that might insist on a five-year political plan for a nation transitioning into a democracy. He proposed setting up a Dictatorship-to-Democracy Center under the authority of the Community of Democracies and U.N. sponsorship. Palmer saw the need for helping countries transition to a democracy while in Eastern Europe, in particular East Germany, where many residents wondered after the fall of the Berlin Wall whether they were better off under the Stazi. “‘At least we had jobs' [then]—that's what they used to say.”

Despite their reluctance to get involved in politics, Palmer said businesses should want to spread democratic values because dictators make unreliable business partners. But companies like Unocal, which is facing a lawsuit in U.S. courts for human rights violations because it worked with Burma's oppressive government to build an oil pipeline, have to deal with dictators in the short term. It's not easy to provide support to dissidents and ask for the government's cooperation at the same time, he noted. Palmer proposed that businesses working abroad in such countries set up a joint cover operation to support dissidents. “There are problems for American companies and they need to come together,” he said. “I don't think it's helpful not to have business in these countries.”

He noted that Hussein built half his palaces while Iraq faced heavy sanctions, and his people suffered more. “I think it's just wrong-headed to say to companies, ‘don't invest in Burma and China,'” he said. “Get in there, but get in there the right way.”

Palmer said isolating dictatorships has led to disagreement within American ranks and has divided us from European allies. “I'm a strong proponent of opening up,” he said. “Closing off countries reinforces the strength of the dictator.”

He also rejected the idea of refusing to meet with dictators. “If you're not going to invade them all, you're going to have to have another strategy,” he said, and often there are many reasons why a dictator might consider stepping down quietly. Dictators “worry; they worry about their families, they worry about their lives.”

Palmer said he talked with some Iraqi exiles, and “in defense of the Bush administration, they weren't too keen about going up against Saddam Hussein without arms.” But when questioned further, they admitted that if 100,000 people had taken to the streets of Baghdad, it may have influenced the leader to step down.

“We need to begin to train people how to use non-violent techniques,” he said—and support those who use them. In a rare demonstration in October in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, nearly 300 protestors were arrested for demanding political reform. According to Palmer, the United States failed to criticize the arrests or the comments of a Saudi minister who announced there would be no more protests. “For the U.S. not to support them in a single sentence in the State Department [daily briefing] is outrageous.”

While the United States may be dragging its feet on condemning some undemocratic governments, others are trying to find ways to prosecute dictators through American or international courts. Chinese dissidents filed a civil lawsuit against former Chinese Premier Li Peng in New York for crimes against humanity in connection with the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Palmer said the U.S. government is worried such measures will set precedents for trying President George Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Palmer believes eliminating dictatorships through a variety of means is possible, and details “action agendas” for 20 countries in his book. Democracies have 90 percent of the world's GNP, and should be able to spread democracy as NATO did during the Cold War, he said. “We just have to work together. The U.S. made a unilateral decision to go to war [in Iraq ] in part because there was no way to work together through the U.N.”

The U.N. Security Council has five permanent members, including China, a full-blown dictatorship, and Russia, a half-way dictatorship headed in the wrong direction, Palmer said. He supported basing the Council's rotating seats on whether a nation has violated key U.N. documents, which would effectively exclude dictatorships from membership. Palmer also criticized the U.N. for allowing human rights violator Libya to be chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. He said half of the commission's members are dictatorships. “It's really a screwed-up situation,” Palmer said, adding that the U.N. is organized by region and works so much by consensus that dictatorships can stop any action to promote democracy.

Palmer said he saw a “huge tidal wave of change beneath the surface” in the Middle East. Leaders of Bahrain and Qatar are starting to give lip service to democratic ideals, despite their tight control over the country. “I really believe what's going to change the Middle East is Arab women,” he added. The women are looking at democratic societies and are asking why they can't have similar freedoms. Iran has seen profound social change in recent years, Palmer said—it's just a question of when dictator Ayatollah Khamenei will realize he's lost.

Convincing dictators like Khamenei to leave while still in power is not an impossible task, Palmer added, and some even go on to lead fruitful lives. The former iron-fisted dictator of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, now has an AIDS foundation and has become a vigorous democrat because it's now in his interest to promote freedom of speech. Mikhail Gorbachev was hardly a democrat in the early 1980s, Palmer said, “but now he wants [freedom of speech]”: since assuming power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shut down all private television stations that emerged after the Soviet Union's fall.

He noted that Spain once offered Cuban dictator Fidel Casto a villa in Spain if he would step down, but he refused. “Castro's a hard case, but I think we've made him a harder case.”

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