Moral precedent set

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 1995, 12:00am

AN American court's decision to award damages to some 9,000 victims of the Philippine dictator, the late Ferdinand Marcos, is an unusual, but positive, development. The US$766.4 million (about HK$5.67 billion) the court decided to allocate goes some way to compensate for the suffering Marcos inflicted on his opponents and sends a signal to other dictators.

The United States may not have the jurisdiction to deal with other despots' fortunes in the same fashion. But the decision has firmly established the important principle that compensation is due to the victims of dictatorship. Whether any court is ever likely to be asked to hand out compensation from the fortunes Haiti's Duvalier family or Romania's (now dispossessed) Ceaucescus stole from their people is not the issue. The day when courts in Switzerland or Liechtenstein start disbursing the ill-gotten hoards stashed in their countries' secretive banking systems will be the day pigs finally learn to fly. However, the moral precedent has been established that the fruits of dictatorship should eventually be returned to its victims.

The immediate question, however, is whether the Philippine Government is prepared to allow the money to be disbursed. Manila also lays claim to the US$1.4 billion Marcos estate. Arguably the return of the money to the Philippine exchequer is no less worthy than its distribution to the regime's victims - and may be fairer. The country as a whole would benefit if such a sum were invested in its reconstruction. The final division of the funds - assuming they can be collected - is a matter for negotiation between the Philippine Government and the victims' lawyers. It must be hoped it can be settled without further recourse to the courts.