Wednesday, September 08, 2004

What to Do With Former Dictators

Daniel Freedman raises an important issue in an editorial in today's European WSJ: how do we try ex-dictators like Charles Taylor without increasing the likelihood that future dictators will cling resolutely to power for fear of facing prosecution afterwards? This is a problem as old as they come - G. Julius Caesar's motivation for crossing the Rubicon was his desire to preserve himself from his enemies by retaining public office and the associated immunity from prosecution.

Forget Milosevic and Saddam. The trial of a former dictator to watch is that of Liberia's Charles Taylor. At least this is the trial the world's other despots -- and their oppressed subjects -- will be following the most closely.

In a deal brokered by Nigeria in August last year, Taylor was granted asylum in exchange for renouncing power. This was done despite his being indicted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed special court in Sierra Leone. He is accused of arming and training the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels in exchange for "blood diamonds" during the country's civil war. Because of the indictment, Nigeria has been under increasing international pressure to hand over Taylor to the court.

The asylum guarantee is also under domestic attack. Two Nigerian men -- mutilated in Sierra Leone by the rebels Taylor is accused of supporting -- are challenging the asylum in a Nigerian court. They argue that under international law asylum should not be given to war criminals. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, however, responds that he gained international agreement on the asylum deal, and so international strictures do not apply. He insists that the right thing for the country to do is to honor its promise to Taylor. This case comes up again September 15.

This in itself is an important debate. The president argues that justice lies in keeping your word -- irrespective of who it's given to. The other side counters that the justice of an evil man being held accountable for his crimes trumps the other "justice."

But this isn't only about Taylor. What happens in this case has direct ramifications for other despots -- and naturally their populations as well. If Nigeria is forced to break its promise to Taylor, other dictators will inevitably second-guess any offer to step down on a promise of asylum. Such offers will be seen as ploys to remove them from power, after which they're at the mercy of their hosts -- who can be forced to break their word.

Tyrants will therefore calculate that they are safest remaining in power in their own country. They'll hold onto power for as long as they can -- destroying their country and killing thousands in the process if need be. Handing over Taylor therefore means that millions around the world living unbearable lives will have less chance of ever being freed in a bloodless transition of power. The only way out will be rebellion or outside intervention.
As much as it pains me to say so, Mr. Freedman's argument strikes me as being correct. Charles Taylor is undoubtedly a bastard of the worst kind, but this issue is bigger than the immediate fate of one sadistic ex-warlord. In the absence of the international will to remove tyrants by force, there is little choice but to abide by agreements like that made with Taylor, however galling it may be to do so.