A new era for dictators? 25th July 2008
November 4, 2008

This week’s arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, is another indicator that life is slowly getting more difficult for dictators. Having spent 13 years on the run, he will now be transferred to the United Nations war crimes trial in The Hague.

Dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe does not want to stand down, fearing that he too could then be put on trial for his crimes. He will cling onto power for as long as possible.

Idi Amin (1924-2003) evaded justice. As a military officer he took over Uganda in 1971 and he remained in power for eight years. The International Commission of Jurists reported that at least 80,000 and may be as many as 300,000 people were killed. He also sent many of the hard-working Ugandans of Indian decent into exile. In October 1978 he invaded Tanzania, with which he had a border dispute. Ugandan exiles volunteered to assist Tanzania.

At this time, Libya’s Colonel Kaddafi was encouraging instability among the pro-western countries in Africa and he supported the erratic Amin. As the war turned against him, so Amin fled to Libya. The new Ugandan rulers wanted to put him on trial for his crimes and so he could not return to Uganda.

Amin, a Muslim, was offered refuge in Saudi Arabia providing he did not get involved in any more public activities. Saudi Arabia, which regards itself as the world’s most important Islamic state, feared that Amin was bringing the religion into disrepute. The lonely and isolated Amin died in Saudi Arabia and he is buried there.

Another dictator who was helped into exile was Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989). He became president of the Philippines in 1965 and seemed to do well at the beginning. But he became addicted to power and he stayed on beyond his elected term. In 1972 he declared martial law. His time in power was marked by corruption and economic stagnation.

He was removed by the 1986 People Power revolution headed by Corazon Aquino (her husband had been assassinated by Marcos’ agents). The United States by this time was no longer so supportive of Marcos and acted as the broker between him and the angry people in the streets. He was flown to the US territory of Hawaii in 1986 and he died there in 1989. Legal actions continue to try to recover some of the government funds that went missing in the Marcos era.

It may now be coming harder for a dictator to evade justice. The international community has created various international and national war crimes systems to investigate rulers.

Saddam Hussein was tried – and executed – by a national Iraqi tribunal. This sent shock waves through the Arab world. He was the first Arab dictator ever to be put on trial in a proper court. Many Arab leaders must be wondering if this could also happen to them.

Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006) was wanted by the UN’s international tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. He evaded capture but eventually a new government in Serbia decided in 2001 that it would improve its international status by handing him over to the tribunal. He died while still on trial.

Much the same seems to have happened to Radovan Karadzic. The international community was evidently unwilling to forget events like the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica and so the new government in Serbia decided that it should hand him over as a way of improving its own relations with the international community.

We should not over-estimate the impact of recent events but it seems that a new era is emerging for corrupt and brutal dictators