The International Criminal Court and the rule of tyrants

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In 2010, I visited the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Sitting less than 10 feet from me, albeit on the other side of a soundproof and ballistic-resistant glass wall, was Radovan Karadzic, an accused Bosnian Serb war criminal finally arrested in 2008. Having served with the U.S. Army in Bosnia in the late 1990s, I remember him as one of the most wanted men on the planet, with special NATO task forces dedicated to bringing him to justice.

As satisfying as it was to see this brutal man, who had engineered mass murders and concentration camps for Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics, finally on trial, the international community has since created conditions that make it less likely that such leaders will face justice.

While the work of the tribunal is scheduled to conclude by the end of 2014, it has been replaced by the International Criminal Court, also located in The Hague, a judicial body with a much larger mandate.

Rather than deal with just one conflict, as was the case for the court Karadzic faces, the International Criminal Court has a global mission to bring to justice all those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses that rise beyond the level of common criminality.

The International Criminal Court, which entered into force in 2002, can indict any dictator, rebel leader or other person if the case is referred to them by the U.N. Security Council, or if the accused is a resident of a nation that has ratified the International Criminal Court treaty.

Fortunately, President Bush announced in 2002 that the U.S. would not be a party to the treaty, concerned that anti-American states such as Syria and Venezuela might call for charges against American soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, as had been threatened by leftist "human rights" groups.

Even so, the International Criminal Court plays an increasingly negative role in global events. While the original intent -- to punish those guilty of heinous crimes -- was well-meaning, in practice the court has prevented the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and hardened the resolution of dictators to fight to the bitter end.

In previous decades, tyrants such as Idi Amin of Uganda, the shah of Iran and "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti could flee into the comfort of exile, secure in their wealth and without fear of extradition. While this may seem a miscarriage of justice, providing an exit for tyrants spares their home countries from additional bloodshed and suffering.

Until the entry into force of the International Criminal Court, nations such as Saudi Arabia, France and Brazil provided safe havens for deposed dictators, forestalling civil wars back home.

It is easy to see why dictators such as Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi and Bashar Assad have opted for resistance over negotiations with the international community. If the alternatives are resistance with honor, even if it leads to death, versus the humiliation of a long and public trial, what incentive is there for compromise?

While the 121 states who have ratified the International Criminal Court have tied their own hands on this issue will complain, the United States should work with its allies who are not signatories -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India -- as well as other states to provide an avenue of escape for dictators on the ropes.

While the satisfaction of seeing tyrants on trial is real, does that really compare to the certainty of saving hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost in the death rattle of a regime?

The United States routinely shelters known felons through witness protection programs, affording new lives and opportunities to those who testify against their former criminal confederates. How much more worthy is the cause when what might be saved is the population of an entire nation, otherwise doomed to additional suffering under a dictator?

The best way to protect human rights is to let the Idi Amins and Bashar Assads of the world flee to palatial house arrest in other countries, at the same time protecting them from trial at the International Criminal Court.

While their final accounting will be therefore delayed, the nations they have exploited and ruined will enjoy an immediate benefit, one unlikely to arrive through indictments issued from The Netherlands.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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