Thursday, July 31, 2008

Despotic Destiny

When I worked as a reporter in besieged Sarajevo in 1994 and 1995, I sometimes fantasized (as many who experienced Serb shell and sniper fire did) about the eventual arrest of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. I imagined him in handcuffs, decked out in his camouflage military attire or in one of his trademark double-breasted suits, his silver plume of well-coiffed hair a reminder of the lifestyle he maintained even after he choked off water supplies to his former home city.

Yet when the bombastic poet-psychiatrist was arrested on July 21, the scene bore no resemblance to the one I had pictured. He wore his hair in a ponytail and sported giant spectacles and a beard. He feebly turned himself over to the Serbian police as soon as they approached him near Belgrade. It had taken 13 years to put Karadzic behind bars, but his final minutes of freedom give some indication of the degrading life he had been leading — and showed the value of international justice, which deserves far more credit than it gets.

The litany of rogues who once boasted of their impunity but later ended up in the dock is surprisingly long, and each has been rapidly emasculated by his fall. A few years ago, I visited the Hague courtroom where former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was being tried.

Unlike when he had engineered the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and forced more than 2 million Bosnians from their homes, Milosevic was not in charge. As he ramped up his rant against the judges to a fever pitch, the judge simply turned off Milosevic's microphone, leaving him gesticulating wildly and foolishly but emitting no sound.

Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, made a mockery of his 1998 indictment by a Spanish judge for the kidnapping, torture and killing of more than 3,000 people. But when Chile refused to grant him immunity, Pinochet spent the remaining years of his life being wheeled into and out of court; after he died in December 2006, the government refused to host a state funeral or declare a national day of mourning.

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian President, was indicted in 2003 for savage crimes carried out in Sierra Leone — including the arming and training of the child soldiers. After the democratically elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf requested Taylor's extradition in 2006, he was finally nabbed in a vehicle loaded with cash and heroin, and he didn't put up a fight.

And yet despite such successes, international justice has gotten a bad rap over the past decade. The rap stems from the failure to arrest criminals like Karadzic and his military counterpart Ratko Mladic, the slow pace and steep expense of the trials at the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the delays to the start of trials at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

When Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor at the ICC, requested a warrant to arrest Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of genocide a week before the Karadzic arrest, he was widely slammed. Critics claimed the step was meaningless and that, far from deterring al-Bashir, it would only enrage and embolden him, making life even worse for the people of Darfur.

But instead of writing off the relatively new judicial and diplomatic tool of international justice, skeptics should heed the three important lessons that recent cases can teach. First, while international courts may be the ones that issue the initial indictments and arrest warrants, it is the local authorities themselves — as we have seen in Serbia, Chile and Liberia and will eventually see in Sudan — who need to be convinced that the benefits of ridding their societies of global villains exceed the costs.

Second, that will is more likely to be created by concentrated regional action than by generic international pressure. It was African leaders like Thabo Mbeki and Olesegun Obasanjo who acceded to Liberia's demand to put Taylor behind bars, and it was the European Union that used its financial and political leverage to sway the Serbian government.

Third, and most important, international justice, when carried out, offers many benefits: it can help establish a historical record, provide dignity to victims, establish individual (rather than collective) responsibility so as to end cycles of violence, and — once prospective criminals begin to fear enforcement — deter. But the most crucial functions of international indictments and arrest warrants are ones that are rarely heralded: stigmatization and incapacitation of really bad people.

Even to the world's worst actors, that can be a powerful incentive to behave. It's revealing that since the ICC issued its request for an arrest warrant, Sudan's al-Bashir has improved humanitarian access to Darfur refugees.

And this before he got a glimpse of his future.

sAmAnThA pOwEr


alex said...

he wont even get executed. I dont think him getting a life sentance will make victems feel any better after the things he did. Instead hill get a nice cell with three meals a day and no torture. Thats probably better than a lot of kosovians have it.

WomanHonorThyself said...

great insights girl..keep up the great fight!:)