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Dictators in Exile: Will Saddam Join the Club? - 2003-02-11

As long as there have been forced regime changes, rulers have been going into exile. The French Emperor Napoleon was taken to exile on the remote island of Saint Helena, following his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The Shah of Iran fled his country and the Islamic Revolution in 1979, stopping in the United States and Panama before settling in Egypt, where he died.

Steven Ratner, professor of international law at the University of Texas, says there are a lot more dictators living in reasonably comfortable exile.

“We hosted one ourselves for quite a while,” he says. “That was Ferdinand Marcos, who came to the United States in 1986 and died (September 28th, 1989). And basically we hosted him as part of a peaceful transition of power to President Aquino. There are other countries that host other people. France has the former Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier. Brazil has the former Paraguayan dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. Saudi Arabia hosts the former Ugandan henchmen Idi Amin. There are others out there as well.”

Whether or not Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein will join this exclusive club remains to be seen. However, most observers says it’s highly unlikely that he will willingly surrender power.

“I don’t think it’ll happen. In part, he’s not a coward. He’s not someone who runs away from this kind of crisis,” says Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.

“He believes that the honorable thing to do, the right thing is to stay. He is the leader. He is Iraq and Iraq is he. It’s a dream in some people’s minds. There’s been a lot of false information put out there, “Oh, he’s going to Mauritania,” “Oh, he’s going to Tunisia,” or wherever. But it wasn’t true when it first came out during the Kuwait War, and it’s not true now. I just find it very hard to believe that someone with his sense of what his roll is, his destiny and his leadership in Iraq and the Arab world, you don’t do this. Saddam does not want to be known as being a coward,” she says.

Even if Saddam were to agree to go into exile, Ms. Yaphe says it’s not clear he would find a welcome home anywhere.

“I can’t conceive of a country that would take him,” she says. “I think it’s been made pretty clear that a number of them won’t before the question is asked, and that includes Libya and a bunch of other countries. And what kind of guarantees are you willing to give him? Are you willing to guarantee him not just safe passage but safety, freedom from prosecution under the international war crimes charges against him, crimes against humanity and everything else? That would be a hard one. But I just don’t see him accepting it anyway.”

There are very few guarantees, either physical or judicial, that Saddam or any other present day dictator could really count on were he to go into exile. Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, says the 1999 London arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the orders of a Spanish judge really changed world opinion.

“Until then, it was kind of normal practice that dictators would brutalize their people and plunder their treasury and then just move next door to join their bank accounts,” the human rights activist says.

“But I think people are feeling that’s not right. About a year and a half ago I was in Panama when Vladimiro Montesinos, the shadowy spy chief for (Alberto) Fujimori was on the run and had gone to Panama. Panama had become something of a dumping ground for washed up dictators. You had people like (Raoul) Cedras of Haiti, (Abdala) Bucaram of Ecuador, (Jorge) Serrano of Guatemala," he says.

"Yet all of a sudden in the post-Pinochet world, Panama didn’t want that reputation anymore and said “no” to Montesinos and he’s now standing trial in Peru. And I think the expectations have changed, and people generally now believe that if you commit these horrible atrocities, you should be brought to justice. That it’s not enough punishment to live on the Riviera,” says Mr. Brody.

While attitudes toward former dictators may have changed, that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to prosecute them at home or abroad. However, Mr. Brody says that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

He says, “The arrest of Pinochet by Spain for crimes that were committed largely in Chile and largely against Chileans started a new trend, and we saw Hissan Habre of Chad be arrested in Senegal. He may now be extradited to stand trial in Belgium. More and more countries are incorporating into their laws the notion of universal jurisdiction, that they have not only the right but, in some cases, the duty to bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst atrocities."

"It’s now generally considered that things like genocide, crimes against humanity, serious war crimes, and torture are crimes that any country can try. So we are in a situation where you can hide but you can’t run because most countries faced with the perpetrator of mass atrocities would feel obliged probably to bring them to justice,” Mr. Brody says.

Law Professor Steven Ratner sees three possible scenarios for prosecuting Saddam Hussein for crimes he has committed against humanity.

“As far as Saddam Hussein goes, there is of course the possibility that he might be tried by a post-Saddam government in Iraq through some sort of Iraqi domestic law,” he says.

“There is the possibility that the Security Council of the United Nations could refer this case to the International Criminal Court under the special arrangements that allow it to refer cases. And there is the possibility that he could be tried by another state," Professor Ratner says.

"There are probably not a lot of other countries that would be interested in trying him. One could imagine conceivably the United States conducting some kind of military commission that would try him, but I’m not really sure the United States wants to get into that business and would rather have an Iraqi government do the prosecution,” the professor says.

Professor Ratner says there is a slight chance the United States and its allies would agree to trade justice for Saddam’s victims for a peaceable regime change in Iraq. If that were the case, where would Saddam go?

“The countries that are being talked about for Saddam are Belarus, in the former Soviet Union, which has maintained very good relations with Iraq,” says Mr. Brody of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Brody says some Arab states have also been mentioned as possible safe havens, although whether they would be safe enough remains to be seen.

“People have talked about places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The crimes that Saddam has committed are crimes that have no statute of limitations and can be prosecuted by any country in the world. So there’s no real way he can be guaranteed freedom from prosecution and perhaps more to the point for him, I’m not sure he could be protected from revenge,” says Mr. Brody.

Most observers play down reports that Saddam Hussein and his family and henchmen are seeking exile. However, everyone agrees that the days of vicious dictators successfully seeking refuge in other countries and more importantly, protection from prosecution for crimes against humanity, are nearing an end. And not one day too soon they say.