Friday, June 3, 2011

For Arab despots, the skies are limited

Imagine, for a thrilling moment, that you are an Arab autocrat. Your regime has just crumbled all around you and there you are, standing alone on the tarmac of the airport with slabs of bullion being loaded onto your private jet. Where on earth, literally, do you fly to?

It’s some relief to know that the expansion of international justice and accountability during the past decade makes an answer increasingly difficult to come by. At one moment there was speculation that the Libyan leader, Moammar al-Qaddafi, would bolt to Venezuela. But honestly, Venezuela?! Tunisia’s Zine al-Abedine bin Ali made his way to Saudi Arabia. Yet who readily wants to end his days in Wahhabi austerity? And while Hosni Mubarak announced that he would die in Egypt, then flew to Sharm al-Sheikh to prove it, this only guaranteed that he would become a pawn in a post-revolution power struggle between the armed forces and youths who overthrew his regime.

Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, perhaps one or two other outposts in the Gulf, even in Central Asia – the choices are thinning fast for the dictator on the run. Qaddafi and bin Ali were once received with full honors in European capitals, rather like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but it’s very unlikely that any of the three will be able to shop in Paris, London and Rome again, at least without facing arrest or legal action.

This is a useful message to ponder days after the discovery of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, 16 years after he masterminded the butchery of some 8,000 Muslims caught in the vise of Srebrenica. Mladic was among the first to learn that in this era of televised and videotaped atrocities, you’re only as good as your last movie. It takes a bold leader to order his soldiers and security forces to massacre unarmed opponents; but also one who has trouble understanding that the world is changing, so that you can suddenly find yourself crushed by the terrible power of international embarrassment.

Take Bashar al-Assad. He was feted for so long, his wife admired so fawningly, that it is understandably difficult for the Syrian leader to grasp that he may soon conceivably become an international fugitive.

In retrospect, what a foul crew of rulers the Middle East has thrown forth in recent decades. Omar al-Bachir of Sudan, along with Qaddafi, are wrestling with indictments issued by the International Criminal Court. Mubarak may yet stand trial at home. Saddam Hussein faced an Iraqi court and was executed in a parody of justice, but no one would seriously argue that he didn’t deserve what he got. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh is close to starting a civil war in order to stay in power. Bin Ali, his wife and her family sucked Tunisia dry, arresting even modest dissenters at will. And Assad and his brother and cousin have been personally sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, even as they continue to command the slaughter of civilians.

Mladic’s fate is a good illustration of the advantages and occasional pitfalls of broadening the implementation of justice and human rights norms worldwide. Serbian nationalists have defended the general, but in the end his arrest will prove even less troublesome than that of the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted while in office by the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Serbia can now look forward to entering the European Union, and with time Mladic will become a forgotten, if uncomfortable, interlude.

But there are downsides. Bosnia is not near true reconciliation more than a decade and a half after the end of its war. The Dayton Accords created a federation including a Bosnian Serb entity and a Muslim-Croat federation, and much of the discord that Mladic embodied in the most brutal of ways has yet to be resolved. Advancing justice and human rights is laudable, even necessary, in post-conflict societies, or in those moving away from authoritarianism. Yet it hardly resolves all the outstanding issues that spawned conflict in the first place. In fact, pushing for justice frequently widens the fractures in societies.

It’s a good thing, indeed a historic transformation, that Arab societies are finally feeling, and expressing, the outrage that they were obliged to suppress for so long. And it’s a good thing, too, that this outrage is based primarily on a heightened sense of the need to implement the rule of law. That reality is why Arab despots are realizing, to their horror, that the future may hold little different for them than what it held for Ratko Mladic. Will this alter the behavior of leaders in the Middle East? It should, but the road to justice can be a rocky one.

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