The Fate of Dictators -- Justice and Revenge
Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School’s International Security Program
Now that Syria has been declared by the United Nations to be in a state of civil war, President Assad must be reflecting on the fate of leaders in the Middle East who have been overthrown recently. The ignominious capture of Saddam Hussein was followed by a speedy trial and hanging, televised so that justice may be seen to be done, according to Iraqi law. The capture and summary execution of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was a barbaric example of rough justice, the display of his body for several days in a supermarket meat freezer being the ultimate indignity to satisfy the public's need for visual proof of his death. The highly controversial operation in Pakistan which ended in the death of Osama bin Laden was sanctioned by a ruling of U.S. law and was a example of ridding the world of a wanted terrorist without regard for legal transparency. The quick disposal of his body at sea was presumably to prevent his burial place from becoming a martyr's tomb and a rallying place for future terrorists.
Other deposed Middle Eastern leaders have fared somewhat better -- the public trial of bedridden Mubarak of Egypt continues sporadically and ex-President Ben Ali of Tunisia who fled to Saudi Arabia, is the subject of 18 trials in absentia, notably for murder and destabilizing the state. He has already been sentenced to 66 years in prison in total and has an international warrant out on his head.
In Syria, over 4,000 people have been killed in the last nine months and Syria has now been officially accused of crimes against humanity. The European Union has tightened sanctions against energy and financial sectors and the Arab League has just approved unprecedented economic sanctions against Syria. The main political opposition group, the SNC and the Free Syria Army formally recognized each other on November 28th as allies in opposition to the Assad regime.
You have to wonder what is going through the mind of President Assad as world opinion is lining up against him. If he had only recognized the needs of his people instead of turning his Army against them, he may have had a dignified exile with presumably his Swiss bank accounts to sustain him. But he has gone too far and one can only speculate what his exit strategy will be.
In a civilized world, President Assad and tyrants like him responsible for crimes against humanity can and should be brought to justice by a process which reflects the underlying principles of the Nuremberg trials. The laws and procedures by which the Nuremberg trials were to be conducted were established after much deliberation in the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal issued on August 8, 1945. The charter stipulated that three categories of crimes were to be tried; war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. Two judges from each of the four victorious countries presided over the trials, which historically has been viewed as a process of great restraint and judicial fairness, especially compared with Stalin's offer to summarily execute 50,000 German prisoners.
The cycle of tyranny followed by violent revenge leading to further tyranny can be stopped as South Africa has proved with its post-Apartheid process of reconciliation. A fair trial televised and covered by international media has the same effect, with the result not always satisfying everyone but at least justice has been seen to be done, on a level beyond national legal systems which may be inadequate, partisan or corrupt. That is why the International Criminal Court should have more standing in the world today and why it is time the United States reconsidered its opposition to the court in the interest of promoting global justice.
It may even help the U.S. resolve the issue causing dissent in Washington right now -- the treatment of suspected terrorists and their trials and the continuing use of Guantanamo Bay as a military prison. Jurisdiction could be handed over to the International Criminal Court if only wiser statesmanship would prevail over partisan nationalism, unfortunately unlikely at this time.
The International Criminal Court is playing a belated role in Libya with discussions over plans for the trials of Gadaffi's son, Seif and the former intelligence chief, Abdullah-al-Senoussi. Some are calling for the men to be tried in The Hague but Libyans want to have the trial on home ground with The Hague court's judges presiding in cooperation with the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. Libya's new leaders have yet to establish a functioning court system and this solution could satisfy the need for international justice being seen to be done by the Libyan people.
Absent a genuine process of reconciliation, the International Criminal Court may be the best way forward for countries after being torn apart by civil war, caught between the forces of newly expressed freedom and long standing dictatorships. At least, it could put those responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide on trial according to international standards, in the hope that this will become the basis of future peacekeeping and order. It may also encourage countries to contribute to multinational peacekeeping missions if the end game of trial and punishment were to be supervised by the International Criminal Court, and it might encourage dictators to leave with some dignity intact instead of being dragged muddy and bloody from a spider hole or a ditch, by an enraged mob intent on violent revenge. If I were President Assad of Syria, I know what exit strategy I would choose -- and I would choose to leave now before there is further loss of life creating further cause for revenge.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.
More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com