Removing Tyrants

by Stanley Meisler

October 4, 2004

More than 30 years ago, during the dark days of the despicable Idi Amin, I would yearn for some way for the world to rid itself of tyrants. As a foreign correspondent covering Africa for the Los Angeles Times, the injustice of it all would torment me. Why should innocent people be forced to endure the terror and poverty inflicted upon them by the cruel whims of Idi Amin? Why should they be condemned because of their accidental birth in an unwieldy country put together by European colonial pooh-bahs in the 19th century? Could not some international entity like the United Nations be empowered to pluck him away?

Idi Amin was the shame of Africa. More than 300,000 of his people died during his reign of less than eight years. No one was exempt. Plainclothes policemen seized the Chief Justice in his courtroom one afternoon, shoved him into the trunk of a car, and drove off to murder him. In an act reminiscent of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews five centuries earlier, Amin crippled his economy by expelling all 80,000 Asian Ugandans, whether born there or not. He announced that God had instructed him to do so in a dream. Amin often tried to hide his cruelty with the mask of a buffoon. After feuding with the British government, for example, he told a group of foreign correspondents, including myself, “Edward Heath is my best friend. He is the best prime minister of England since Adolph Hitler.”

Amin was finally brought down by his neighbor, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Nyerere, a statesman who felt the need to serve as the conscience of Africa, looked on Amin with contempt, denouncing him as “a murderer, a liar and a savage.” In 1979, he used the excuse of a Ugandan border incursion to send his troops after Amin. I cheered and so did most of the world. The Ugandan Army, more used to looting and murdering than fighting, disintegrated, and Amin fled to exile in Libya and finally Saudi Arabia, where he died just a year ago.

I have thought of Amin often in the last few months as President Bush and his defenders have embraced the tyranny of Saddam Hussein as a conclusive reason for their invasion of Iraq. The tyranny has become their argument of last retort. When challenged about their failure to find weapons of mass destruction or their flimsy evidence for linking Iraq and Al Qaeda, they have a smug reply: Isn’t the world better off without Saddam Hussein in power? It is not an easy argument to counter. If I cheered the fall of Idi Amin, why don’t I cheer the fall of Saddam Hussein?

There are vital differences. The overthrow of Amin was blessed by almost every other government on earth. The cost in lives was small. No occupation followed. The decision to strike down the tyrant was made by a blameless, saint-like African leader, not the president of an imperial power. The motives of Julius Nyerere were above suspicion.

None of these conditions held for President Bush, who defied world public opinion to invade Iraq. Bob Woodward’s latest book, in fact, has made clear that Bush would have invaded Iraq even if Saddam had already fallen in a coup or fled into exile. The cost of the war so far —more than a thousand American soldiers dead, thousands more wounded, far more Iraqis dead and maimed, a mounting occupation bill of more than $100 billion, our soldiers shamed at torture — has been so high that everyone knows the United States will shy away from repeating the adventure elsewhere. The war in Iraq can hardly be regarded as some kind of precedent for an orderly way of ridding the world of tyrants.

In fact, neither can Nyerere’s dispatch of Idi Amin in 1979. Conditions were very special then. The tyrant was neighbored by a man of conscience who could not bear the staining of Africa any longer. That is an unusual coincidence. Look at Zimbabwe now. Robert Mugabe is destroying the fabric of his country, starving his people and sullying the image of Africa. His machinations endanger the multiracial experiment of neighboring South Africa. Yet President Theo Mbeki of South Africa can not summon the courage and conscience to condemn Mugabe in public.

Is there any hope for an orderly way of removing tyrants like Amin in the future? We do have a mechanism now that was lacking in the 1970s. The International Criminal Court has opened at The Hague in the Netherlands, empowered to indict and try those accused of war crimes and other crimes against humanity. This court, created by international treaty in the wake of the special UN-sanctioned courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, is untested. In fact, it hasn’t had a single case as yet. The court, moreover, may be crippled by American rejection. The Bush Administration not only refused to submit the treaty creating the court to the Senate for ratification; it took the extraordinary step of revoking the original American signing of the treaty. International bodies usually founder when they have no support from the United States.

During the first weeks of the American invasion of Iraq, Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, proposed a novel way of empowering the International Criminal Court to deal with tyrants. Under her plan, published in The Atlantic, the Security Council would authorize a bounty of $50 million to $75 million for the capture or killing of a despot indicted by the court.

The Slaughter scenario is probably far-fetched. It raises the specter of mercenaries, agents and criminals, powered by greed, crawling through a capital bent on UN-blessed assassination. I doubt whether the Security Council would ever approve such an unsavory course. But I think Slaughter is right in suggesting that the International Criminal Court should serve as the source for international confrontation with tyrants.

Do future Amins have much to fear from the court? The accomplishments of the special UN tribunal on the former Yugoslavia can probably give us a good idea of how the new court would work in the future. In some ways, the precedent bodes ill for tyrants. The special tribunal has refused to allow tyrants to hide their villainy behind their borders. International judges and prosecutors no longer regard borders as sacrosanct. Among the charges against former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial, are the murder and uprooting of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia. A despot who represses a population within the borders of his own country can now be indicted for crimes against humanity under international law.

But the judges and prosecutors have proven woefully weak at corralling the accused. Milosevic was thrown out of office in Belgrade in 2000 and then turned over to the court by his enemies in the succeeding government. But the court has been unable to put its hands on two other infamous fugitives, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, both charged with genocide in the murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the 1990s.

Judging by this precedent, I would guess that the International Criminal Court will manage to indict tyrants, denounce them as pariahs, force them to forgo international travel, and weaken their sense of impunity. But the court will surely lack the means to arrest them.

The instrument of arrest has to be the Security Council. Rather than set a bounty, Old West style, to capture the tyrant dead or alive, the Council could authorize a small military expedition to enter a country and arrest the indicted leader. This would make sense — especially when the offending government is as weak as Idi Amin’s Uganda. But it is hard now to envision the Council doing so. The messy and costly American misadventure in Iraq will make Security Council members uneasy about using force against tyrants for many years. The diplomats will surely fear a quagmire and harbor doubts about any Western intelligence reports that purport to detail atrocities.

By toppling Saddam for confused reasons based on misinformation, President Bush has made it far more difficult to topple despots like Amin in the future. Removing tyrants in any orderly way is still a pipedream.

October 4, 2004
Washington DC

see also:

Democracy: One Man, One Vote, Once
November 14, 2003

Depressing Thoughts on Our Victory
April 29, 2003

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

A Frightening Performance on Iraq
October 16, 2002

Impasse in Iraq
December 11, 1998

Saints and Presidents: A Commentary on Julius Nyerere
December 17, 1996

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