In a special feature which encourages informed and responsible ways of tackling abuses of power, Dr Christopher Williams suggests that young people make use of new web resources

Students and teachers who took part in the recent anti-war protests were putting the citizenship curriculum into practice. In the words of the DfES PSHE TeacherNet they were ‘learning about socially and morally responsible behaviour through experiences beyond the classroom’. Their actions are also part of a significant historical trend over the past 60 years – they were calling specific political leaders to account. Yet for many children the reward was detention. Sadly, some headteachers saw their initiative as a threat rather than an educational opportunity.

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Contributing to a better world

Leadership accountability is like other aspects of globalisation – we cannot stop it, but we can optimise the benefits and minimise the threats. If young people are taught how to challenge responsibly, they can contribute to a better world like the ‘Drop the Debt’ campaigners. If the desire to challenge is inhibited, we are likely to see more violent demonstrations like the ‘Battle of Seattle’ and more suicide bombings as in London. Like those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the young people who perpetrated the London bombings were engaging in a form of leadership accountability, taken to extremes because they could see no other way to have influence. We must develop viable alternatives for those with a strong sense of accountability because increasingly they will challenge what they see, rightly or wrongly, as abuses of power. The rationale is much like that for sex education. They are going to do it anyway. So whatever our personal views, we should try to encourage actions that are informed and responsible.

The purpose of this special feature is to show that demands for leadership accountability by students are part of a historic and broadly beneficial social movement. It suggests how they can be taught to challenge leaders in an informed and responsible way through using new web resources. The aim is to engage students, particularly those who feel alienated by the conduct of current political leaders, by going beyond teaching them about abuses of power to teach them how to do something about it.

Leadership accountability and the national curriculum

Knowledge and understanding about becoming informed citizens

  • The legal and human rights and responsibilities underpinning society, basic aspects of the criminal justice system.
  • The key characteristics of parliamentary and other forms of government.
  • The work of national and international voluntary groups.
  • The significance of media in society.

Developing skills of responsible action

  • Negotiate, decide and take part responsibly in both school and community-based activities…
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of different ways of bringing about change at different levels of society.

Leadership accountability

Throughout history, leaders have usually been above the law. But in the 1940s the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials created a new leadership accountability ethic, which is now extending within three areas:

  • political violence (‘war crimes’)
  • corruption
  • environmental change.

The new International Criminal Court (ICC) and other tribunals concerning Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone continue leadership accountability for war crimes. The Iraqi Tribunal was set up by the US and appears similar to the other courts, but there is a big difference. It will only hear cases against Iraqis, not against US, British and other occupying forces. The fall of despots such as Milosevic, Pinochet and Fujimori mark the strength of the new accountability movement. But action against George Bush and Tony Blair is a related aspect, and court cases against them have already been taken to the ICC and other courts.

Civil society organisations have taken the lead concerning corruption. The NGO, Transparency International (TI) has developed innovative ways to ‘name and shame’ corrupt governments. The TI ‘Corruptions Perceptions Index’ (CPI) ranks countries based on the opinions of international companies and the public. Students enjoy guessing where particular countries might come on the league table, and then comparing with the CPI. In September, the new UN Convention on Corruption came into force, and it is interesting to ask student views about how this might improve global trust.

Accountability for environmental crime is more difficult. Again, civil society organisations do better than governments. The Indian NGO, International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) wants the chief executive of Union Carbide to be tried for causing the deaths of 20,000 people, following the explosion at its factory in 1984. Increasingly, organisations are comparing environmental criminals with war criminals. The ICJB compares images of the Union Carbide boss, Warren Anderson, with Osma bin Laden. Indexes such as the ‘Ecological Footprint’ show how different countries impact on the environment, which indicates how responsible their political and commercial leaders are. Again, students enjoy guessing the likely ranking, and comparing this with the data.

Discussion point – American leadership

The new ICC is based on laws and procedures created by the Americans after World War II. But George W Bush has now refused to support the ICC. Why?

The original war crimes courts were one-sided ‘victor’s justice’. They set groundbreaking progressive standards, because the Americans did not foresee a globalising world in which the same standards could eventually be used against American leaders. A US wartime leader, Robert McNamara, said in a recent film, The Fog of War, that had America lost the war, he and others would have become war criminals for killing 1.5m Japanese civilians with firebombs and using A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other US military actions over the past 60 years might amount to war crimes.

Why leaders do harm: ‘If you find yourself in a hole…’

Why do intelligent leaders often dig themselves into unintelligent holes? The problem is ‘lock-in’ – they get trapped in a mess of their own making. Students who might become managers and leaders in other fields can learn to avoid failure by understanding the traps, and there are lessons for all of us.

Lock-in starts with decisions made on the basis of beliefs or intuition, not evidence. There is nothing wrong with intuitive decision-making in day-to-day life, but this is not a good way to make major decisions, for example about a company’s strategic plan or starting a war. If a belief-based decision is bad, leaders then start to trap themselves in a downward spiral. (These are simple ideas, but this ‘cumulative lock-in’ is based on significant psycho-social theories.)

From bad belief-based decisions:

  • leaders defend their bad decisions (‘declare-defend’)
  • they use information selectively (‘pathological information’)
  • they surround themselves with unquestioning supporters (‘disciple syndrome’)
  • they become increasingly overoptimistic (‘positive illusions’)
  • mutual benefits reinforce bad decisions (‘coincidences of interest’)
  • there is ‘no turning back’ (‘sunk-cost fallacy’)
  • they deceive themselves (‘denial’) and others.

In the end, the deceit turns people against them, and the leaders fall. Students can discuss how significant leadership failures fit this pattern, for example the invasion of Iraq or the Enron case. They can also consider it in relation to their daily life, and family relationships. The lesson – if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Exercise – An international law to regulate leaders

Unsurprisingly, very few laws directly regulate leaders. Ask students: If you had the power to create an international law on global leadership responsibility, what would you put in it? Start by using the headings: political violence, corruption, and environment; consider deceit.

Netizenship – turning threats into opportunities

ICT underpins most challenges against leaders. The public protest that brought down President Estrada in the Philippines was organised by texting. In many countries young ‘netizens’ (net citizens) have great influence on political leaders. When South Korea’s present president, Roh Moo-hyun, came to power, he sent 4m emails answering the concerns of netizens. is a Korean netizen site (click ‘English’). Traditionally, Koreans could complain to their king by hitting a gong (Sin-Mun-Go) at the palace gate. Now the president’s home page has a Sin-Mun-Go section.

Britain is not so advanced, but there are useful sites. The BBC Action network provides ongoing advice about local citizen action, and notice boards and chat rooms about current issues. The BBC also provides a guide, ‘How to Lobby Political Representatives’, which has information about questioning and challenging political leaders.

The NGO site provides an easy way to identify national, European, and local leaders through entering a postcode, and advice for campaigners. It is then possible to write a fax to individual politicians online, and WriteToThem produces data about the response rates. Students can use the fax page, and check out if their own MP is good at replying. In many countries, including Britain political censorship or corporate interests prevent the media reporting properly on contentious issues. The Independent Media Centre is a collective of independent media organisations and hundreds of journalists offering grassroots, non-corporate coverage. Many of the stories will never appear in the mainstream press, or will only appear too late for citizen action.

At the recent anti-war demonstrations in London, a group of Muslim children was carrying a banner with the words, ‘Iraqi children need schools, not graves.’ Through building an awareness of global leadership accountability, and developing netizenship skills, action like this can become an educational opportunity not a threat. Inevitably this is an ethos that will also extend to challenging head teachers. But if that prevents one suicide bomber, it is a challenge worth accepting.

The Global Leadership Responsibility Index

Statistics about war, human rights, corruption and environment can be combined to assess the global responsibility of leaders. The result (1 = best) is:

  • 1. Sweden 
  • 2. Netherlands 
  • 3. UK  
  • 4. Canada
  • 5. Belgium 
  • 6. Germany  
  • 7. France   
  •   8. Japan  
  • 9. Spain  
  • 10. Italy  
  • 11. S.Korea
  • 12. China
  • 13. Russian Fed
  • 14. USA


Students can create similar indexes. For example, the UN High Commission for Human Rights shows if national leaders have supported human rights laws. Students can rank the countries according to the number of codes supported. (Ignore ‘s’ – only ‘signing’ a code does not mean a country will obey it.)

Discussion point

America usually ranks below Europe and other countries such as China and Russia. Why? Although American leaders sign many international codes, they often do not ratify. In addition, the US has a poor environmental record and uses its military force in other countries.

Political violence
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials Click ‘Assorted Images’.

Transparency International (TI)  Click ‘TI Surveys and Indices’.

Ecological Footprints of Nations

Dr Christopher Williams is Lecturer in International Education at the Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham.  He is author of Leadership Accountability in a Globalising World (Palgrave/Macmillan, March 2006) which includes the Global Leadership  Responsibility index