Can the world really deal with despots?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am

The incidences of political leaders cheating their constituents, or worse, murdering them for political or other inexplicable reasons abound today. The death of former Indonesian president Suharto gives pause to consider if the global justice system lives up to its name. It's time for a legal mechanism to nip despots in the bud.

The case of deposed Liberian leader Charles Taylor, which resumed last month in The Hague, is significant for being among the first occasions when the international justice community has actively pursued a sitting leader.

The common practice is to wait until a leader has been removed from power before pressing charges in an international court. Among those suffering this ignominy are Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Chad's Hissene Habre, Juan Bordaberry of Uruguay and Panama's Manuel Noriega. Suharto, charged with embezzlement, was deemed too ill in 2000 to stand trial.

Often, of course, dictators die before the legal system can run them down. But while the death of a tyrant may be cause for relief, it does little to serve the cause of justice.

Justice is a heavily weighted term in global affairs. It carries a flag-waving value and support among most, but it is just as often used as an applause button and nothing more.

State leaders, no matter how dictatorial and reprehensible, have the ultimate jurisdiction over those unfortunate enough to be stuck within often hastily drawn lines on a map, known as borders. This has become the underpinning of the international system, where manufactured borders may as well be concrete walls a kilometre thick for all the legislated international influence that can be brought to bear on rulers.

The dark regimes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Than Shwe in Myanmar, Kim Jong-il in North Korea or Omar al-Beshir in Sudan may well generate the opprobrium of the international community. But most of these men will probably ease into political retirement, possibly fleeing to some legal no-go zone to live it up until their demise.

Surely a system needs reform when it allows the most malevolent and recidivist individuals in our midst to run their own people into the ground, beyond the reach of judicial measures. There may be a legal system, but justice is somewhere else. The rare examples when the international community appeared to agree on a means of removing a murderous leader from power - such as the oil-for-food scheme in Saddam Hussein's Iraq - have been poorly maintained and fatally flawed by corruption.

That the UN needs reform is not new. That global justice is an oxymoron is oft-felt. Yet, these facts should not be a deterrent to doing better. If we can't get rid of sitting dictators, or better yet, block their entry, short of all-out war, what have we learned from centuries of international jurisprudence? Taylor, a tyrant by any reference, must be an example for dealing with recalcitrant violators of human rights. Suharto should not.

James Rose is founder of Random Ax, a specialist media advisory firm working exclusively on humanitarian and community issues