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Human Rights Prosecution: Whose Job Should It Be?

Article excerpt

How should current and former dictators be held accountable for their human rights abuses?

The growing complexity of this issue is highlighted in the well- meaning but troubling cases of former Chad President Hissene Habre and former Chile President Augusto Pinochet, who are both being pursued by courts in foreign countries for human rights abuses.

In recent years, democracy activists worldwide have pursued several ways to deal with gross rights abuses, such as torture. These include the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, blanket amnesties in some Latin American countries, and the campaign for a permanent International Criminal Court.

But now the prospect of hostile prosecution by outsiders may be obstructing long-needed political change in countries like Iraq or Yugoslavia.

These are tough issues. How can you "persuade" rights abusers and their henchmen to allow long-needed reforms, while also giving due acknowledgment to, and reparation for, their victims' suffering?

The Clinton administration has made clear it intends to continue tight economic sanctions for Iraq and Yugoslavia until their dictators are replaced. But the administration has shown itself quite unwilling to commit the troops needed to "force" these transitions to occur.

This has created harmful standoffs in both cases: The dictators remain in power, while the citizens find the harsh effects of sanctions added to the hardships they already suffer from their rulers.

Meanwhile, the continuation of sanctions and the threat of widespread prosecutions seem to strengthen these dictators' internal political positions. Remember: Thirty years of sanctions on Cuba and 10 years on Iraq have not changed either regime.

Establishing international tribunals will not help resolve these problems unless there is an international army ready to force compliance with their judgments. That's not about to happen. So the most effective way to end rights abuses in such countries may be tough persuasion from citizens, not idle threats of prosecution.

In many countries, this "persuasion" has worked well. …