What Makes a Dictator Pack His Bags?

By Owen, David | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), August 21, 2011 | Go to article overview
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What Makes a Dictator Pack His Bags?


Owen, David, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


We all want to see Gaddafi and Assad face their just deserts, but politicians have to reconcile justice with pragmatism

When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia last December and quickly spread to Egypt, it was predictable that the greatest political and military challenge for Europe would come from Libya. Colonel Gaddafi's long record of support for terrorism and brutality against his own people had, for six years, been masked by an apparent readiness to abandon both terrorism and a nuclear weapons programme. But by March 2011, the grotesque language of Gaddafi's son Saif threatening to destroy Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, confirmed the regime had no intention of changing.

Following a specific Arab League request, and French and British resolve, a no-fly zone over Libya was authorised by the Security Council. It is of long-term importance that China and Russia did not block the resolution and that the US wanted to be supportive but not take a lead role.

The German government and other EU dissenters from military action against Libya, should answer this: if we had let Gaddafi and his sons take Benghazi, what would have happened in Syria? Would the Syrian people still be fighting President Bashar Assad and his brother? Would Turkey be contemplating taking action against Assad? By a cruel coincidence of timing, just when the patience of the Turkish government was running out with the Assads, the upheaval in the Turkish military has been a huge distraction. Yet Turkey is the one country in the region capable of acting to stop the present Syrian slaughter. Israel wisely stays out of the conflict. The US rightly fears being blamed for exacerbating present tensions in Lebanon and provoking Hezbollah. Nevertheless, President Obama's decision last week to freeze Syrian assets and ban petroleum products is an important new pressure on Assad.

Overall, the implementation by Nato of the Libya no-fly zone has been a success, helping the liberation forces in the last few days to virtually control Zawiya close to Tripoli. But the price of UN- authorised intervention has been a strictly controlled and limited military operation and political intervention designed to necessitate negotiations between the Libyans.

This new form of constrained interventionism has been the inevitable consequence of US and UK failure in Iraq. It is something that China and Russia is likely in future to insist on to guide the "responsibility to protect" interpretation of the UN Charter agreed by the heads of government summit of 2005. Experience has also taught that forcefully removing despotic leaders is fraught with difficulty. The world has, however, designed a new legal mechanism for intervention. During the war in Bosnia, Cyrus Vance and I recommended that the Security Council should establish the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). President Milosevic was tried by this tribunal, but died or committed suicide before sentencing.

Tragically, the ICTY, established in 1993, did not prevent the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. The big legal breakthrough came with the decision to bypass Security Council vetoes with a multinational treaty to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC). This Rome Statute came into force on 1 July 2002, and 116 states are ICC members. A further 34 countries, including Russia, have signed but not ratified. Israel and Sudan unsigned, as did the US under George W Bush, though the Obama administration is working with the court. China and India have neither signed nor ratified.

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What Makes a Dictator Pack His Bags?
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