Friday, July 14, 2006

Prisoners Dilemma

The Prisoners Dilemma is one of my favourite theories, and has been on my mind lately. It’s extraordinarily well researched, and is one of those little conundrums that one comes across frequently in real life. Its description is simple. You take two prisoners who have done a burglary together. They have both been arrested. There is no direct evidence.

The best response is for both to stay quiet. If they do, then both receive a minor sentance. However, the police make the same offer to both, confess, we’ll let you go, and convict your partner to hell and back. If one stays quiet, and the other grasses, the one who kept the faith is dealt with harshly, and the one who broke it gets off. If both confess, then both are treated less harshly, but both do go to jail.

Hence the dilemma. Do you trust your partner to do the right thing, which ends up in a decent result for both of you, or do you take the action that at best lets you off free, at worst gives you a sentence slightly worse than both staying silent?

The reason its been on my mind lately is the incredible story of the NatWest three. Now, truth be told, the three have profited from highly suspicious circumstance. Details here, but basically they appear to have convinced their employer to sell something at a discount, then personally profited from the result. Its murky, unclear, and they may be completely innocent, but it doesn’t look good.

However, this is messed up in the Enron scandal, which has the Americans incensed and running amuck. UK legal bodies have looked at the case and have determined there is insufficient evidence to convict. Not a nice answer, but there you go. This is not good enough for the Americans, and so they look for other avenues.

Here we come to the prisoners dilemma in action. In good faith, the US and the UK negotiated a new extradition treaty to allow more easy transport of terrorist suspects where evidence is thin or can’t be revealed for security reasons. Personally I do not agree with the removal of habeas corpus (in this case the three could not contest the evidence, as none was provided, only contest the legality of the treaty), as is happening throughout the world, but I do understand the driving logic behind it.

The UK, with a culture of following the spirit of the law dutifully, ratified the treaty. The US has not. A classic prisoners dilemma scenario. One side keeps the faith, the other does not. If reports are to be believed, this is due to a suspicion that the UK would then misuse the treaty to extradite suspected IRA terrorists who perform vile acts a long time ago. Truth be told there are many IRA killers who’ve found safe haven in the US, its just a complete misread of the situation to think the UK would derail further the Northern Ireland situation by doing such a thing.

Now here we come to another cultural difference. In the US, law is followed to the letter, not the spirit as it is in the UK. Hence US prosecutors have dug through treaties and found one that, in print, allows then to extradite suspects without detailed proof being presented, on anything they like. Ignoring the spirit of the law, they use the letter of the print.

The UK has fallen trap to the prisoner’s dilemma. By ratifying a treaty before its partner, it has allowed itself to be harmed when the partner can not be.

Again, there’s a lot of other factors at play here. There is the US misusing a treaty meant only to cover acts of terrorism to extradite for acts of white collar crime. That says the treaty was badly written. There is also the sheer arrogance of the US for thinking it can prosecute a criminal act performed by foreign nationals on foreign soil.

The whole thing is a mess, and leaves me angry. I have no sympathy for the NatWest three, but this should not be happening. I am proud to live in a country that so fervently believes in the law, and in following the rules. That does not mean we should be fools and allow ourselves to be abused by others who do not do so.


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