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Meet the McNair Scholar: Zantana Ephrem

Some students spent their summer lounging peacefully at the pool. Zantana Ephrem spent hers studying just war theory.  

Research  |  Sep 7, 2018  |  By Nicole Rupersburg
woman

With support from the UNLV McNair Scholars program, Zantana Ephrem has been able conduct research on international law and the ethics of assassinations as an undergraduate student.

Plenty of people opt for light reading in the summertime, but not UNLV undergraduate Zantana Ephrem. Instead, she hunkered down with the United Nations Charter.

The McNair scholar, a dual major in economics and philosophy with a concentration in law and justice, is also pursuing a Brookings Public Policy minor. She spent the past few months exploring a just war theory justification for the assassination of dictators. She plans to study peace and conflict in Israel in the upcoming year, with support from a Boren Scholarship issued through the U.S. Department of Defense. That will lead her to a mandatory one-year job in U.S. national security afterwards.

Here, Ephrem shares some of the ethical considerations her research embodies as well as how grappling with these considerations is preparing her for the future.


Can we prevent deaths, wars, and all the other atrocities committed by dictators and bad political actors? And is assassination the tool that allows us to accomplish this?

I’m asking these questions through my research.

There is nothing in the UN Charter that justifies humanitarian interventions, but it has been more or less accepted that the UN is allowed to do that if it sees fit. So, should the UN carry out the assassination of a dictator to prevent more large-scale atrocities?

My argument is that humanitarian assassinations should be a morally allowed option. My conclusion is driven by research-based reasoning and justifications. I’ve been familiarizing myself with the UN Charter and previous actions the UN has taken. And since international law also plays a role in decisions around this subject, I’ve been reading a lot of international criminal court cases and statutes, studying previous assassinations, and familiarizing myself with previous government actions as well.

Right now I’m grappling with the fact that there is no real way to predict the fall of any dictator or leader or the repercussions of such a fall when it occurs. We’ve seen that previously when the U.S. or other Western nation has gotten involved with a smaller, poorer developing country’s affairs. Even when done with the best of intentions, this type of intervention sometimes creates an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” type of situation. I’m trying to figure out how to prevent that, and if we can’t, how to minimize the risk.

It’s a difficult topic. People’s lives are at risk, one way or another. A country’s security is at risk. I may be grappling with this kind of scenario in the future, so I’m grateful for this research experience. It’s nice to have the luxury of hypothesizing before having to make a real-life decision.

My research isn’t about sitting in a lab. It’s about talking to my research mentor, UNLV philosophy professor-in-residence Abigail Aguilar, and bouncing ideas off of her; reading; talking to other philosophy and political science students; and sitting around theorizing until I reach a conclusion that I think would be an ethical action. What would I do if I were in a position of power and had to decide how to deal with a tyrant?

Believe it or not, I actually had no interest in research when I first started. Now I definitely do.

The McNair Program provided me with an awesome opportunity to delve into my subject and get research experience before graduate school. It’s great for undergraduates. We’re compensated for our research, and they publish it in the McNair Journal. They hold research workshops throughout the school year, offer GRE prep, and provide us with the timelines we should follow for applying to grad school.

My advice to other undergraduates is to get involved in as many things as you can and try everything. The best experiences aren’t always the ones that show you what you love. They can also be the ones that show you something that you hate, and then you know what you chose really isn’t the field for you. That, in turn, brings you one step closer to figuring out what you do want to do.