In late 2009 Bobby Bowden, then 80, was unceremoniously forced into retirement as the head football coach at Florida State University (USA). Last fall Joe Paterno, then 84, was fired as head football coach at Penn State University (USA). Both men literally built their sports programs into perennial powerhouses and national champions. Yet, for different reasons, each was forced out against his wishes.
A few days ago two other octogenarians were unable to successfully wield the remarkable power they had amassed as younger men: Reynaldo Bignone and Jorge Rafael Videla were convicted in Buneos Airies, Argentina for directing a program in which children were taken from their parents during the 1976-1983 Dirty War and adopted by military families. Similarly, in Guatemala, octogenerian and former Dictator and President Efrain Rios Montt is currently undergoing a trial facing genocide charges. Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet first faced legal consequences for his crimes against humanity when he was 83.
To be sure, these handful of cases do not establish a meaningful pattern, and there may well be some systematic research out there (please note it below in the comments if you know of any)*, but to my knowledge there is not yet a literature exploring the extent to which elderly rights violators come to face charges. Yet it seems to me that a good place to begin thinking about this has to do with the inevitable shrinking of a winning coalition that octogenarians (and septegenarians) face: the bulk of those who supported them in their have died. This conjecture could be explored using a competing risks model:
Population: Leaders of states that scored a 4 or 5 on the Political Terror Scale while they were in office
Risk Set: natural death; violent death; exile; prosecution
Primary X: Age – Mean/Median life expectancy for gender
To the extent that this conjecture is on target, the trials and convictions in Guatemala and Argentina may bode less well for the establishment of human rights than they initially might indicate.
* I hasten to add that I have primarily skimmed the literature on survival in office, and thus am in no position to represent it here (and therefore run the risk of re-stating published arguments). But as noted above, that’s what the comments are for.