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Questioning legitimacy of rulers

Measuring and controlling the actions of governments

Dr. Richard Lawson

Editor's note: in response to Culture Change Letter #68, Can the ecopsychologically disturbed citizenry question legitimacy of rulers?, Dr. Lawson told us he is "interested in this question of the legitimacy of rulers.  I enclose an exploratory piece about measuring and controlling illegitimate actions of governments."  Upon our urging he sent in a full report, below.  His title was Improving Governance at the International Level but he allowed the above present title.  He has innovative suggestions that come from an honest analysis that does not get caught up in the details of governmental atrocity and mendacity.  - JL


The international community deals with oppressive regimes in an inconsistent way, and on an ad hoc basis.  Prime Minister Blair seems to be moving towards enshrining the ìpre-emptive warî into international law ñ itself an implicit admission that the current US-UK venture into Iraq was illegal.

Is intermittent war on badly performing states a sustainable or rational way of  arranging world affairs?  Is this an acceptable New World Order?  There must be a non-violent way of curbing the excesses of tyrannical regimes.


George W Bushís Operation Iraqi Liberation shows that violent overthrow of oppressive regimes causes as many problems as it solves.  The arbitrary and illegal actions of the US-led ìCoalition of the willingî have caused unprecedented hostility and controversy.  Yet on the other hand few people support the idea that the international community should sit back and watch while atrocities and genocide take place as in Rwanda and Kosovo.

In his Millennium Report to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan challenged the international community to address the real dilemmas posed by intervention and sovereignty.  The independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was established by the Canadian government in September 2000 to respond to that challenge, and has presented a report[1] that indicates when and how military action might be taken against an oppressive regime.

This leaves us in the position of using military violence against a state, violence in which innocent bystanders are bound to be injured and killed.  In place of this, the world needs a non-violent system that rewards good governance and gives disadvantages to governments that are tending  towards oppression and genocide.

First we need a reliable measure of governmental performance.  Several models for this already exist.  It would not be difficult to develop an instrument of this kind so that each country in the UN could be ranked in order, with well-performing governments with good human rights records at the top, and badly performing countries at the bottom.

The second phase of the process would be to allocate diplomatic advantages and disadvantages to governments in each band on the scale.  Those at the higher end of the scale would have least restrictions.  Those lower down would be subject to a progressively tougher ìsmart sanctionsî ñ designed to restrict the regime without hurting the people. 

The Problem

The problem lies in the way governments are accepted by the international community.  Essentially, government is de facto and not de jure.  Anyone who controls the army and the police is the Government.  For our leaders, the question is not, ìIs this a decent government dedicated to justiceî but ìWill he align with us or with some other bloc?  Will he trade with us? He may be a bastard, but is he our bastard?î  Tyranny is tolerated and overlooked by governments when it suits them.  When it is expedient or desirable to do so from the point of view of our leaders, the tyrant that we have been supporting may be denounced in the UN and at home.  He is portrayed as the new Hitler in our media. Full on sanctions are applied.  Later, the bombing starts.  His people are killed as collateral damage, his country is reduced to rubble, and the development process is set back by decades. 

All the time, our government and those of our allies are presented as ìdemocraticî and therefore above reproach.

This simplistic good/bad categorisation is not a true representation of the situation.  Standards of Governance range on a continuum from the reasonably good (e.g. Scandinavian) through the indifferent to the thoroughly unpleasant (e.g. Husseinís Iraq, Burma, Zimbabwe).

We need to redefine what constitutes a legitimate Government, moving its basis from the de facto towards the de jure.

In order to reflect this continuum, a league table of governmental performance should be created, so that governments could see where they matched up to on an objective set of criteria.  It would be a measuring rule to rate the quality of governance of any state.

The Index of Governance

The performance of any institution can be measured.  There are at least two instruments in existence, which can form the basis for measuring governmental performance.  The Observer Index of Human Rights (,2763,201762,00.html) is a good working model.  It was compiled in two ways.  The first ñ the simple ranking ñ represents the incidence of 10 headline abuses given a score that relates to the intensity of the abuses in each country.  The controversy of this method of scoring is that it does not take into account the relative cultural development of the country; so another factor was added to take account of this.

This approach has been also been developed by the Purdue Terror Scale ( ) which was created in 1983 by Michael Stohl.  It is a graded scale for measuring human rights violation and was adapted from work originally published by Raymond Gastil of Freedom House in 1979.  The raw information for the scale comes from the United States Department of State and the Amnesty International Annual Reports on countriesí Human Rights practices.

To these instrument, further factors could be added in.  For instance, the New Economics Foundation has pioneered the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare which gives a better pointer to the economic health of a nation than the narrowly focused GDP.

Other factors which could be included might be the following:…

  • No use of torture
  • No imprisonment without trial
  • Free and fair elections
  • Free speech
  • Toleration of non-violent political opposition
  • Fair treatment of minorities
  • Non possession of weapons of mass destruction
  • Low Military/Social budget ratio
  • Non-harbouring of terrorists (that is any group of people who are prepared to inflict terror on other people, especially non-combatants, in pursuit of political goals)
  • A convergent economy, that is, an economy in which the ratio of incomes of the highest and lowest parts of the population are tending towards the median.

These indices would be run together into a final score, an Index of Governance, leading to a league table of nationsí performance.

This would not be a difficult or expensive task, and could be run by a modest secretariat, on an on-going basis.

Enforcing good behaviour

Once the Index is installed, work can be started on the far more difficult task of influencing the behaviour of governments.  Diplomatic and economic rights and privileges should be accorded to each country in proportion to their score on the Index of Governance.  If the ranking  of a country falls, the privileges are reduced.  If the position on the index rises, the privileges increase.  According to a UN agreed protocol, a failing country will incur penalties on a graduated basis.  The penalties will be carefully designed to avoid hurting the people of the country ñ a lesson learned from the sufferings of the Iraqi people due to the post-1991 sanctions.  The sanctions will be targeted onto the elite ruling classes of the country.

 Here are some examples of possible sanctions:

  Loss of specified voting rights in UN, with diminution of the power of the countryís vote.

  Assistance given to democratic opposition groups who support principles of good governance.

  Tightened border controls, in readiness for smart sanctions.

  Loss of ability to receive loans.

If the country falls further down the scale, graduated sanctions are introduced progressively, beginning with financial transfer restrictions, then followed by restrictions on trade in:

   lethal goods,

   dual purpose technology,

   chemical weapon precursors,


   nuclear technology,

  wines and spirits,

  tobacco, cars, oil & oil products, and luxury items.

If these measures fail to get the oppressive government to reform, opposition groups who support the principles of good governance will be entrusted and empowered with responsibility for imports of, and fair distribution of, necessities like food and medicines.  

The effect will be that all parties know where they stand.  If Governments choose to behave badly, they know that there will be a price to pay for that behaviour.  Good governance will be rewarded and bad governance will be inhibited on a continuous basis.  


It is clear that the second part of this proposal will be very difficult to implement, and will raise many objections.

ìThis proposal runs counter to the aims and practices of the WTOî.

Agreed.  The central objection of the anti-globalisation campaign is that globalisation sets free trade above human and environmental values.  There is a direct contradiction between the aims of the World Trade Organisation and the aims of the Human Rights, Green and Peace movements.  The WTO and associated organisations could be challenged by the anti-war movement to assent to these proposals as their contribution towards the war effort.  There is no better time than the present to make this challenge.

"This Proposal Challenges The Notion Of Absolute Sovereigntyî.

The doctrine of state sovereignty was introduced about five hundred years ago to end the meddling of the Pope in secular affairs and so is overdue for revision.  We should be under no illusions as to how difficult it will be to institutionalise this system of international standards of governance.  What leader of a country is going to let go of any degree of his sovereign power to a council of his peers, even if it is in the cause of inhibiting wars and terrorism?   A great deal of pressure from citizens persuaded of the essential rationality of the proposal will be necessary.

 ìThis is the old idea of World Governmentî

It is not.  World Government implies a standard regime affecting all aspects of behaviour; this proposal is simply restricted to prevention of inhumane activity.

ìOppressive Regimes Will Simply Walk Out Of The UNî

This is a major risk of this strategy.  It should be recognised that the UN is severely under-resourced ñ its total budget is less than Britainís military expenditure, and its establishment is less than the NHS establishment in Wales.  For this initiative to succeed we need first a progressive strengthening of the power, influence and usefulness of the UN.

A new world order is possible on paper, a suitable subject for speeches and articles, but in the harsh world of international realpolitik, it runs smack into the buffers of state sovereignty.

The choice before the world is clear: either continue as we are under a regime of sovereign states oppressing their people and going to war with each other, or a community of states who are signed up to a common set of ground rules, and in which good governance is rewarded with power and trading advantages, and poor governance is inhibited with loss of privilege and trading disadvantages.  The cycle of violence is endemic in human history.  Modern wars are so destructive, whether fought with high explosives or machetes, that we must create a different political framework.  This central reality is the motivation that will help us slowly to overcome the self-interest of politicians. 

Dr Richard Lawson is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.  Learn more about him at



Articles of interest:
Measuring and controlling the actions of governments 

Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results. 
WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius 

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.

Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California. Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)

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