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The twilight of the tyrants

Dictatorship is fading, but democracy doesn't always replace it

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2003


The Lion of Mesopotamia crawled out of a hole in the ground this week, looking docile and disheveled as a doctor prodded him with a tongue depressor.

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It is tempting, perhaps, to see Saddam Hussein's dazed emergence from his hiding place, his hands above his head, as a scene of sweeping symbolism: dictatorship surrendering to democracy.

The former Iraqi president's capture, and his coming trial, are doubtless blows to bloodstained autocrats elsewhere. The world is becoming a more dangerous place for despots. But even where the rock of dictatorship has been lifted in other parts of the world, the seedling of democracy often struggles to take root.

The ranks of the world's dictators have thinned dramatically over the past three decades, dislodged by global geopolitical earthquakes such as the end of the Cold War, by local uprisings, and by growing global intolerance of their rule.

That intolerance has been fueled by technological advances - such as cell-phones and the Internet - that give resisters new ways to organize and inspire one another. It has been made flesh in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, expected to hand down its first indictment for gross human rights abuses next June.

The gold-braided generals who once strutted from one end of Latin America to the other are back in their barracks. The Communist apparatchiks who ruled Eastern Europe with an iron fist have been pushed aside. African strongmen bloated on their nations' stolen wealth have fled into exile.

Unseating the autocrats who remain, however, from Cuba to North Korea, from Saudi Arabia to Burma, poses policy challenges that the United States and other democracies are only beginning to face, say diplomats, human rights activists, and analysts.

Terrorized by secret police and paralyzed by fear, subject peoples often find it hard - if not impossible - to shake off their burden. "But if people were allowed to voice their views, the dictators would not stay, and in that sense they are very fragile," points out Mark Palmer, a former US ambassador who advocates a more activist Western policy to oust tyrants.

"The last 30 years of history shows that they go fairly easily when people start to get organized," he adds, pointing to leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic, who stepped down as President of Yugoslavia in 2000 without a shot being fired.

One quarter of the world's 192 nations are today "not free," down from 43 per cent of countries in 1973, according to a report released yesterday by Freedom House, a New York-based human rights group that has been measuring political rights worldwide for 30 years.

"Absolute dictatorship is becoming less and less common," says Adrian Karatnycky, author of the report. "Over the last 30 years, 45 [more] free countries have appeared on the global map."

Significantly, he adds, today when new countries are created, as in East Timor, or when nation builders step in, as in Bosnia, "the model everyone turns to is democracy. There is no question of forming a one-party state" as was the fashion in newly independent countries four decades ago.

On the other hand, the conditions that feed autocracy persist in many parts of the world. "Apart from residual communism," argues Bernard Kouchner, the former United Nations administrator in Kosovo, "there are two sources of dictatorship: extreme poverty and oil."

Almost all the energy-rich nations in the Middle East and Central Asia figure on Freedom House's list as among the least free in the world. At the same time, 37 of the 49 "not free" countries have an average per capita income of less than $1,500 a year. The group makes its list on the basis of characteristics such as the vibrancy of civil society, the independence of the media, and the fairness of elections.

Whether they buy off their populations with improvements in their living standards, or simply impose themselves by force, autocratic regimes at both ends of the wealth scale "terrorize the few to get compliance from the many, and co-opt people whose fear makes them comply," says Peter Ackerman, head of the Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington.