08.04.11

Where Dictators Go to Die

Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad and other strongmen have fewer options for cushy exile now that so many countries work with the International Criminal Court. Dan Ephron reports.

Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti fled to France. Ferdinand Marcos lived out his life in Honolulu.

In the good old days, an ousted dictator who committed terrible crimes against his countrymen might still be able to negotiate a cozy retirement in a place where the living is good. Marcos, having robbed the Philippines for more than two decades, even managed to take the money with him.

But the end of the Cold War and the rise of an international justice system have changed the equation. Contemporary dictators pondering a relocation have far fewer options, most of them unhappy (think North Korea).

The issue asserted itself in the most bizarre of circumstances this week when a former Israeli cabinet minister disclosed having offered Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak refuge in the Jewish state. Compared with some other sanctuaries, Israel is a dream. It has good weather and a functional banking system.

But for Arab leaders especially, the idea of retiring in posh Herzliya or on the shores of the Kinneret might be too much to contemplate. Mubarak preferred to remain in Egypt, where he went on trial this week for allegedly ordering police to fire on the protesters who rose up against him.

So, for beleaguered rulers like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, what are the options?

First, they’d have to rule out those countries that have accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Both Gaddafi and Assad allegedly have committed war crimes against their own people. The ICC has already indicted the Libyan leader on referral from the United Nations Security Council. Assad could be next. Countries that have ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court—115 and counting—would be obliged to extradite the two leaders to The Hague. The list includes states that in the past have provided homes to fallen autocrats: Panama (Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide), Chile (East Germany’s Erich Honecker), Paraguay (Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza) and Brazil (Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner).

“There’s no way any of these countries could do the same these days,” says Lawrence Douglas, who teaches law at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “Once the ICC brings charges, you’re basically harboring a fugitive and not just allowing a cushy retirement for a former strongman.”

Next, the strongmen would need to draw a line through countries that care at all for international legitimacy, including much of the Arab world, China, and Russia. Even without having ratified the Rome Statute, these countries would risk isolation and even sanctions if they flouted it, says David Crane, who served as prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor. “It’s just not worth the political pain,” he says.

That would leave just a handful of countries, according to Crane, including North Korea, Zimbabwe, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Only the most desperate rulers would consider North Korea given the country’s extreme poverty and dysfunction. And Syria’s political situation is unstable. Since no one likes to move twice, it would be unappealing as well.

With no place to run, the dictators can only cling to power more tenaciously.

Saudi Arabia has a record of taking in Muslim leaders, including Uganda’s Idi Amin and, more recently, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The incentive for Saudi leaders is not financial (though the Ben Alis are reported to have brought over millions in cash and looted gold). In fact, the Saudi regime actually paid Amin a large subsidy over the years to stay out of politics. Primarily, the Saudis wish to head off what they view as bad precedents in the region, says Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard College. “They don’t want to see a fellow authoritarian lose his head or worse.”

Whether the Saudis would welcome Gaddafi, with whom they have had tense relations over the years, remains uncertain. And Assad is no great friend of the kingdom either. Ironically, some scholars believe the narrowing of their options is actually prolonging the misery in both their countries. With no place to run, the dictators can only cling to power more tenaciously.