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World: Justice Fickle When It Comes To Former Dictators

  • Mark Baker

Footage of deposed President Saddam Hussein after his 13 December capture in Iraq was beamed to television sets around the world -- likely into the homes of General Augusto Pinochet, Jean-Claude Duvalier and many other former dictators who have managed to escape Hussein's fate. When it comes to dealing with ex-strongmen, international law, it seems, is a game of chance.

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The capture last week of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein underscores the fact that in the often fickle eyes of international justice, not all dictators are treated equally.

Hussein, captured by U.S. troops following a massive manhunt, now awaits a likely trial in an international tribunal or in Iraqi courts. He is almost certain to be sentenced to years in prison or, possibly, execution.

Few will have sympathy for a man accused of torturing and killing tens of thousands of people, launching two disastrous wars and using chemical weapons. But Hussein himself could be excused for wondering what separates his case from that of Idi Amin, for example.

The former Ugandan strongman was also responsible for thousands of deaths and other atrocities while in power in the 1970s. Yet, instead of a trial or execution, he was allowed to live out his days in peaceful exile in Saudi Arabia. He died last August.

Amin's case is not unique. The list of former dictators who have escaped significant punishment is long. Former Haitian strongman Jean-Claude Duvalier, for example, maintains an apartment house in his Parisian exile. Despite repeated efforts to prosecute him, former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet lives in his home country, where he has been declared unfit to stand trial on health grounds.

Professor Hans Koechler, a legal scholar at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, tells RFE/RL that there are few international norms for how to treat dictators once they fall.

"Ideally, of course, there should be a unified set of legal norms -- legal standards -- [on] how to proceed in the case of international crimes having been committed by rulers. But unfortunately, this is not the case," Koechler said.

He says too often the punishment -- or lack of it -- reflects the political landscape in the world at the time and has little to do with the seriousness of the crimes.

Dictators who fall afoul of world powers -- such as Panama's Manuel Noriega or Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic -- find themselves sitting in courtrooms. Others -- like Amin -- can spend their last days at home with the grandchildren.

"The basic reasons are not legal, but they are always reasons of national interest and foreign policy considerations," Koechler says. "This is the reality as long as we have an international legal system that is based on the sovereignty of the nation-state."

Koechler explains that in Amin's case, the prevailing Cold War prevented any concerted international action.

"In the case of Idi Amin, he was a ruler and then a deposed ruler in the time of the Cold War. At that time, it would have been unimaginable that the United Nations Security Council would have established a tribunal because there was definitely no unanimity to be expected between the United States and the Soviet Union," Koechler said.

Koechler says this contrasts with the case of Milosevic, who is currently on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The thaw in relations between East and West after the collapse of communism allowed for an international consensus.

"In the case of Milosevic, as far as I can see, the establishment of the [war crimes] tribunal happened shortly after the end of the Cold War -- that means after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. And in this rather short period of time, there was a situation in the [United Nations] Security Council in which Russia did not use a veto against the establishment of such a tribunal," Koechler said.

But does international justice really only reflect power politics? Some analysts are more optimistic. They concede the historical record in dealing with dictators may be spotty but say the future looks brighter.

Reed Brody of the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch says he sees a new international determination to get tough on dictators.

There has been a fundamental shift "in the way the world deals with perpetrators of atrocities," Brody says. "We used to say that if you killed one person, you went to jail. If you killed 10 people, you were put in an insane asylum. And if you killed 10,000 people, you got invited to a peace conference."

He says the 1990s genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia precipitated a call for international justice. And he says the 1998 arrest of Chile's Pinochet in London on a Spanish extradition warrant highlighted the fact that former dictators walk among us unfettered.

"I think it was the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia that were a catalyst. The end of the Cold War meant that there was no longer a deadlock on many of these issues in the [UN] Security Council. You could create tribunals. The arrest of Chilean General [Augusto] Pinochet in London [in 1998] on a Spanish warrant had a real wake-up effect, not only for dictators, but also for victims," Brody said.

Pinochet was later released on health grounds, but the arrest drew huge media attention to his case and that of other former dictators.

Analysts say the UN's new International Criminal Court may eventually provide a forum and body of law for dealing with former dictators in a standardized and more objective way. The court has set up operations in The Hague and is preparing to hear its first cases.

Its influence, however, may be limited -- at least in the short term. The court faces strong opposition from the U.S. and other states who see it as a threat to national sovereignty. In addition, it can only hear crimes committed after 1 July 2002 -- leaving at least the current crop of dictators unaffected.

And what about dictators still in power but possibly looking for ways to ease their transitions to civilian life? Koechler says current strong-arm leaders like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi would be well advised to stay on the good side of world powers.

"As long as he is somehow [on] good terms with those powers that count -- for example, the United Kingdom -- nothing will happen to him. It's a matter of rapprochement [between] Libya and those powers that are influential in the international system. As long as there is a basic political understanding, there will never be any talk about criminal prosecution," Koechler said.
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