Despots’ downfall opens debate: justice vs reconciliation

Arab Spring has so far cost the jobs of 2 long-time leaders, at least 3 others are warily eying despot exit ramp. But what happens next?

May 11, 2011 21:03
Hosni Mubarak

Mubarak 311 Reuters. (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah )

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu were tried and executed in front of television cameras. In much of post-communist Eastern Europe, ex-leaders avoided trial or received symbolic punishments. South Africa’s apartheid-era leaders were spared that when the country opted for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission empowered to grant amnesty. Ferdinand Marcos, the leader of the Philippines, opted for exile.

The Arab Spring has so far cost the jobs of two long-time leaders and at least three others are warily eying the despot exit ramp. But what happens next? The history of toppled dictators offers a variety of precedents – punishment by trial, amnesty in the context of an official search for truth, or exile and obscurity. Right now punishment seems to be the preferred route for those deposed.

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Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons have been arrested as have a host of other officials from his government. Mubarak could be executed if convicted of involvement in the deaths of anti-regime protesters, Justice Minister Abdel Aziz Al-Gindi said last week. Last Friday, his Interior Minister, Habib Al-Adly, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering.

In Tunisia, President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, but he has been indicted in absentia on counts of corruption and involvement in the killing of protesters. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating charges against Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi and senior members of his regime for crimes against humanity.    

"It's still a bit early to assess, but it seems that post-revolutionary Arab measures have been more reactive than planned," Habib Nassar, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), told The Media Line. "Ad hoc measures are being taken to appease the street with no real strategy."

Justice or amnesty may take years to come, but the decisions Arab countries make may already be having an impact: Al-Qaddafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh  and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, all fighting to remain in power, are almost certainly looking at how former leaders fare.

Under a plan mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saleh was offered immunity in exchange for stepping down within 30 days, but as of Monday no deal had been consummated. Al-Qaddafi has rejected calls for him to step down, but the European Union sent an encouraging message to despots when it unfroze the financial and property assets of Moussa Koussa, Al-Qaddafi’s foreign minster, after he defected.

Mubarak and Ben Ali stepped down relatively quickly and with little violence. Some analysts have said that the turn to violent pushbacks in places like Syria, Yemen and Bahrain reflects the growing anxiety of leaders for their future, now that they see what has happened to their peers.

"Some leaders, like Saleh in Yemen, are seeking impunity packages," Salman Sheikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center told The Media Line. "But the precedent of Saddam Hussein's execution in Iraq has not necessarily made leaders more reform minded."

Sheikh suggested that the way to end violence in Syria would be by offering President Bashar Al-Assad an opportunity to leave the country peacefully, although that would spell the end of the Baath regime in Syria.

Tunisia, whose president was the first despot to be forced out of office by the Arab Spring, has started to deal with the issue systemically. On April 14, the ICTJ, the Arab Institute for Human Rights and United Nations hosted a conference titled "Addressing the Past, Building the Future," aimed at discussing ways “to translate demands for justice and accountability into concrete measure that address past human rights violations and that help prevent their repetition."

"There is almost a consensus in Tunisia on the need for accountability for members of the former regime," says Nassar of the ICTJ. "Now, they need a strategy. Obviously you can't prosecute everyone who was active in state apparatus, only the 'big fish'."

As communist dictatorships collapsed in eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, transitional justice emerged as a multidisciplinary field as a means of addressing systematic abuses by former regimes without endangering the delicate political transformation to democracy.

Transitional justice encompasses not only criminal prosecutions, but so-called truth commissions and memorial efforts, such as museums and memorials for victims. But the transition isn’t easy. Victims of the former regime usually want those responsible to pay the price for their deeds. The problem is that demands for justice can interfere with the nation-rebuilding process.

Nassar says popular demands for justice and accountability brought protesters to the streets and now these demands must be translated into judicial action. He says that for transitional justice to take root, the legal process must enjoy broad legitimacy among the people, with as many components of society consulted as possible.

"Now rulers should take a step back and consider international standards such as defendants' right to fair trial and due process with clear criteria," Nassar says. "Achieving accountability is not enough – the process is as important as the outcome."    
South Africa has used the model of Truth and Reconciliation Committees (TRCs), allowing abusers to own up to their crimes in return for amnesty. Victims listen to perpetrators' testimonials and are expected to pardon their victimizers. 

Vimla Pillay, manager of the mediation and training department at the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa, has worked extensively with victims of South Africa's Apartheid regime. She says that although TRCs were a great exercise in healing, allowing for forgiveness and reconciliation, they had serious shortcomings. Victims must receive both emotional and legal redress, she said.

"One limitation is that victims' wounds were opened during the process, with not enough follow-up," Pillay told The Media Line. "Layers of trauma were revealed, but there was no post-TRC counseling. Even in terms of financial compensation victims were not handled very well."

Pillay says the notion of forgiveness is part of South Africa's culture and religious belief system. In the post-Apartheid era, President Nelson Mandela encouraged citizens to forgive and move on, she says, but adds that such unconditional forgiveness is often more beneficial to perpetrators than to victims, who need some form of closure.      

Habib Nassar of ICTJ says the South African model of amnesty for perpetrators was the exception rather than the rule in cases of transitional justice. He says that transitional justice usually included criminal proceedings against perpetrators of crimes.

Following the bloody conflict in the Balkans in the early 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established under United Nations auspices in 1993, the first war crimes court ever created by the organization. The court allowed victims to recount the horrors they experienced while also ensuring justice is served against perpetrators. Some 160 people were charged by the Hague-based court, including former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević who died in prison in 2006 and Bosnian-Serb politician Radovan Karadžić whose trial is underway.

The court asserts that it has played a key role in rehabilitating former Yugoslav states in the post-war era.

"Simply by removing some of the most senior and notorious criminals and holding them accountable, the Tribunal has been able to lift the taint of violence, contribute to ending impunity and help pave the way for reconciliation," the court website explains.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN in 1994 to prosecute perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda during 1994 which cost the lives of at least 500,000 people. Located in Arusha, Tanzania, the court is meant to "contribute to the process of national reconciliation in Rwanda and to the maintenance of peace in the region."

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