The Magazine

How Not to Get Rid of Dictators

No tyrant will be willing to give up power if he ends up on trial

Jul 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 41 • By MARC A. THIESSEN
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WHILE U.N. delegates were meeting in New York recently to finalize details of the proposed International Criminal Court, which they claim will forever end impunity for war criminals, the news leaked that the Clinton administration was considering a deal to give indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic safety in exile in exchange for his peacefully relinquishing power. It was a fitting irony.

Just last year, the United States had flatly rejected an exile-for-democracy deal for Milosevic urged by Serb opposition leaders. Figures such as Milan Panic had complained that Milosevic's indictment left him "a cornered animal," removing any incentive for him to step down. But U.S. defense secretary William Cohen declared cavalierly: "He is an indicted war criminal. If there is anywhere where he seeks sanctuary, perhaps I would recommend The Hague." Now the administration is singing a different tune.

The sudden turnaround on Milosevic exposes a little-discussed deficiency in the march toward "global justice." In practice, the International Criminal Court will end the peaceful transitions to democracy that marked the last two decades.

This democratic revolution was celebrated at the "Community of Democracies" summit here on June 25-26. The dirty little secret, however, is that most of those peaceful transitions to democracy involved some sort of amnesty, power-sharing, or safety-in-exile for the dictator who handed power to the democrats.

A look at the roster of the Warsaw summit tells the story. Almost none of the democracies that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union have prosecuted their former leaders. Neither have Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, the Philippines. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela shared power for years with the last apartheid leader, president F. W. de Klerk.

Taiwan was not welcome at the Warsaw summit, but it, too, has just conducted a peaceful transfer of power, the first from a Chinese ruling party to its democratic opposition in 4,000 years, and it has done so without prosecuting officials of Chiang Kaishek's regime for their abuses during decades of martial law. Spain may have sought the extradition of General Pinochet, but it never prosecuted its own Franco-era leaders for their abuses against the Spanish people. All of these countries chose some form of impunity for their former oppressors, and all are now stable members of the community of democracies. There is a pattern here.

At the World Forum on Democracy, a conference of non-governmental organizations held here in parallel with the summit, former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik challenged participants to consider what signal the detention in London of General Pinochet sent to a tyrant like Fidel Castro. The lesson, Michnik said, was that so long as Castro stays on the path of dictatorship, kings, presidents, and prime ministers will flock to Havana to shake his hand; but as soon as he embarks on the path of democracy, those same kings, presidents, and prime ministers will have him arrested. What is his incentive to relinquish power? There are, Michnik told a stunned audience, two paths from dictatorship: the path of Pinochet and the path of Ceaucescu -- and, he declared, "I choose Pinochet."

Hearing such words from a man like Michnik, who suffered years in prison at the hands of Poland's Communist dictators, was disquieting for the Western human rights activists in the audience who have been leading the charge for an International Criminal Court. But the fact remains: The ability to give dictators a face-saving way out is an essential component of democratic change. Most societies, offered the choice between looking backward for revenge and looking forward to democratic reconstruction, have chosen the latter.

This does not necessarily mean ignoring the past. The Central and East European democracies have pursued varying levels of "lustration," exposing those who collaborated with the secret police and barring them from public office. South Africa empaneled a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that gave amnesty in exchange for confessions of apartheidera crimes. And some nations may eventually decide their democracies are stable enough to handle prosecutions of former dictators; Poland waited 10 years before bringing charges against Wojciech Jaruzelski. The point is, every new democracy deals with its past in its own way.