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Sluggish justice emboldens despots

In the past, ousted tyrants would expect to spend the rest of their waning years in comfortable exile, oblivious to the insidious reach of international law, tribunals and justice. Living comfortably in posh villas with lavish lifestyles or quietly existing in far off, hard to find slums amongst a hand full of sympathizers, they expect …


In the past, ousted tyrants would expect to spend the rest of their waning years in comfortable exile, oblivious to the insidious reach of international law, tribunals and justice. Living comfortably in posh villas with lavish lifestyles or quietly existing in far off, hard to find slums amongst a hand full of sympathizers, they expect to leave behind the shattered injustices of their unrepentant past. This is slowly changing however, as rampant corruption, plunder of mineral wealth and genocide with impunity has finally garnered the attention and ire of the world.

Indeed, the international community bore witness to numerous reports this past month alone that saw ruthless dictators extradited from across the globe to face a belated groundswell of justice. Among one of them is former Chadian dictator, Hissene Habré. His victims and Human Rights Watch have ensured that Mr. Habré is held accountable for crimes against humanity, torture and the plunder and squander of Chad s treasury during his murderous reign of terror from 1982 to 1990. After doing away with approximately 40,000 of his innocent flock, Mr. Habré was finally ousted only to find refuge in Senegal.

Moving further east towards Asia, a similar blueprint of barbaric pillage and murder was orchestrated by communist militias of the same caliber in Cambodia. The apprehension and prosecution of 81 year old former Khmer Rouge ideologist, Nuon Chea was recently charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in ordering the deaths of 1.7 million people during the Khmer Rouge s rule from 1975-1979. The judges of the tribunal have charged the former second highest Khmer Rouge leader with murder, torture, imprisonment, persecution, extermination, deportation, forcible transfer, and enslavement. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.

While all these developments are commendable, it is by no means exhaustive. There seems to be a renewed sense of cooperation among governments to tackle an equally important dilemma of how best to curb embezzlement cases. Recently, London cooperated with Africa to bring to justice Nigerian governors allegedly thought to have embezzled state funds earmarked for poverty reduction and employment programs. Last month, the U.K. returned to Abuja some of the money seized by London police from former governor of Plateau State, Mr. Joshua Dariye, who was arrested in London in 2004 but skipped bail to return home. The British High Commissioner to Nigeria handed two checks totaling more than $250,000.

However, this sum is thought to be a fraction of the fortune that the former Governor is suspected to have repatriated from government coffers into his personal bank accounts overseas. He is believed to have stolen more than $128 million during his tenure as Governor from 1997 to 2007, of which $2.8 million have been frozen and are currently awaiting repatriation back to Nigeria. This is outrageous given that his official salary totaled $80,000 a year in a country where the vast majority of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.

While governments battle to bring corrupt bureaucrats to justice and seize ill-gotten gains, a number of innovative proposals are emerging, designed to promote best practices and good governance in emerging democracies while dissuading corruption by state officials. One such initiative is the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African leadership, which is scheduled to be awarded on October 22 to past statesmen who have demonstrated excellence in African leadership during their tenure. Mo Ibrahim, former Chairman of Celtel, one of Africa s largest cell phone companies, is expected to award the prize worth $5 million in trenches over a period of 10 years, with a further $200,000 for life thereafter.

All this is not to say that the battle to strengthen governance across the world while prosecuting former corrupt heads of state accused of human rights violations and embezzlement is over by any stretch of the imagination. There are numerous despots who remain out of reach partly due to how state politics often take precedence over jurisprudence. Former Haitian military dictator Raoul Cédras, for example, continues to shy away from the public eye due to an arrangement made with the Clinton administration to relinquish power back in 1994 in exchange for political asylum.

Although many will point to the wrath imposed by present day dictators that continue to escape retribution for their crimes as evidence that nothing has changed; the gradual shifts in the past month pushing forth judicial accountability is commendable; albeit long overdue. Despite occasional setbacks, bringing criminals to justice has strong public appeal as it provides redress for victims, punishes perpetrators and their families and helps deter future crimes. Recent evidence also dispels the long-held fear that the threat of prosecution compels dictators and corrupt state officials to cling to power rather than relinquish power. More importantly, the kinds of precedents set down in the Habré or Chea cases will increase pressure on countries to withdraw the welcome mat for tyrants and bring forth justice. These cases reflect an emerging global trend signaling the end of impunity that the international community should embrace.

Hany Besadais the Senior Researcher working on the Fragile States research project at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada. Miran Ternamian is a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University and CIGI researcher.

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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