Last year, I was sitting at a restaurant table with some of academia’s top international relations scholars, discussing events in Libya. The suggestion was put forth, half in jest: Why not create an island in the South Pacific as a refuge of sorts for overthrown dictators? After all, Tunisia’s Ben-Ali had just fled to Saudi Arabia. Mubarak had escaped to Sharm el-Sheikh. And other despots, along with their families, were eyeballing ways to exit the scene gracefully.
Would handing out one-way tickets to some desert island be good for governments looking to avoid protracted conflicts and move on? It might mean that the International Criminal Court (ICC) would have to stop issuing arrest warrants for war criminals. It might also mean that current dictators might be more bloodthirsty since they know they can retire with a daiquiri in hand – this is the equivalent of Yeltsin demanding immunity from his successor for himself and his corrupt family to enable him to rest (or at least play lots of tennis) in retirement.
But should dictators be given their own exclusive Club Med? After all, the Mo Ibrahim prize is similar, as it essentially pays African strongmen to step down – they get to cash their $5 million checks, regardless of past human rights abuses. And most would argue that the initiative is a good thing for transitional democracy there.
Or consider the Assad regime in Syria. It still has not been charged with war crimes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The Arab League has offered it a “safe exit,” presumably to Moscow, one of the last remaining places of refuge where Assad is not hated (As Matt Frei quipped on the Diane Rehm show: “I know it’s not London, it’s not Paris, the shoe shopping is not quite the same, but your wife will be happier there than she will be in dungeon in Damascus.”).
Arguments for an Island of Elba of sorts for fleeing strongmen are two-fold: a) the kind of violence meted out to Qaddafi, while perhaps cathartic, does not bode well for transitional democracy (had the Ceausescus been allowed to flee to Guam, instead of shot in cold blood, maybe Romania might have had a smoother transition to post-communist government); and b) the trials of ex-dictators can often backfire and be used to pour salt on wounds (the trials of Saddam and Milosevic come to mind – one was rushed and during the other, the defendant died halfway through).
Strangely, Saudi Arabia of all places has emerged as the retirement home, or Florida, of ex-dictators (or if you need good medical treatment, it’s Cleveland – as evidenced by Egypt’s Omar Suleiman and Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev, both who received medical treatment there before kicking the bucket), which can’t offer great beaches or a boozy nightlife. Last time I checked there were no overwater bungalows in Jeddah. It’s not clear how Idi Amin spent his last few days. The House of Saud has often offered safe haven to those leaders with whom it enjoyed cordial relations (but notably it did not extend an invitation to Qaddafi), even if Saudis were not always on board. Other dictators have sought out comfier environments. Paris was the exile of choice for Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The “Shah” of Iran landed in Panama (en route to Egypt), Ferdinand Marcos ended up in Hawaii, and Congo’s Mobuto Seso Seko settled down in Morocco.
Giving dictators an easier retirement plan would be bad for long-term healing and transitional justice but good for immediate cessation of violence and short-term democracy building. The unintended consequence is that today’s worst human rights abusers – the Robert Mugabes out there — would have little incentive to temper their violence, seeing how they can retire peacefully and never atone for their sins. But it’s unclear that the Sword of Damocles-like threat of an ICC indictment is having much impact on reforming authoritarian behavior (see Sudan). The best example of a reformed regime out there is Burma, and its junta was not tried for crimes against humanity.
When revolution strikes, perhaps it makes sense to have a more formalized mechanism for giving the ruling family a safe exit, even if it means a one-way ticket to some faraway island and a safe haven from being prosecuted by some Baltasar Garzon-like magistrate (the fates of Charles Taylor and Pinochet would sadly become a thing of the past). It might not be fair, but it may beat the alternative of letting them hang around to fight it out.