Human rights prosecution: Whose job should it be?

How should current and former dictators be held accountable for their human rights abuses?

The growing complexity of this issue is highlighted in the well-meaning but troubling cases of former Chad President Hissene Habre and former Chile President Augusto Pinochet, who are both being pursued by courts in foreign countries for human rights abuses.

In recent years, democracy activists worldwide have pursued several ways to deal with gross rights abuses, such as torture. These include the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, blanket amnesties in some Latin American countries, and the campaign for a permanent International Criminal Court.

But now the prospect of hostile prosecution by outsiders may be obstructing long-needed political change in countries like Iraq or Yugoslavia.

These are tough issues. How can you "persuade" rights abusers and their henchmen to allow long-needed reforms, while also giving due acknowledgment to, and reparation for, their victims' suffering?

The Clinton administration has made clear it intends to continue tight economic sanctions for Iraq and Yugoslavia until their dictators are replaced. But the administration has shown itself quite unwilling to commit the troops needed to "force" these transitions to occur.

This has created harmful standoffs in both cases: The dictators remain in power, while the citizens find the harsh effects of sanctions added to the hardships they already suffer from their rulers.

Meanwhile, the continuation of sanctions and the threat of widespread prosecutions seem to strengthen these dictators' internal political positions. Remember: Thirty years of sanctions on Cuba and 10 years on Iraq have not changed either regime.

Establishing international tribunals will not help resolve these problems unless there is an international army ready to force compliance with their judgments. That's not about to happen. So the most effective way to end rights abuses in such countries may be tough persuasion from citizens, not idle threats of prosecution.

In many countries, this "persuasion" has worked well. In Russia, South Africa, and many Latin American and East European countries, former rights abusers were influenced by the mass actions of local citizens either to democratize or allow peaceful transition to others who would. In these cases, the transitions were negotiated at varying speeds - sometimes with provisions for holding dictators accountable for misdeeds swept under the rug, sometimes, as in South Africa, with negotiations explicitly part of the transition.

But in none of those successful transitions toward democracy was the threat of prosecution by external bodies a contributing factor.

This is significant because it means that in trying to establish accountability for past misdeeds, it may be much more effective to empower citizens of an abuse-stricken country to deal with their own rights-abuse issues, than to set up toothless bodies of international prosecutors.

Inevitably in such a process, local communities will then find their own balance between the demands of justice and peace, and the demands of truth and mercy.

These are judgments that local people - not a posse of well-meaning outsiders - are in a better position to make.

For Chileans, the early stages of their partial transition to democracy allowed a broad amnesty for Pinochet's past abuses. But now Chile has opened up even more and seems much closer to examining the painful facts of its past. That is something Chileans - as well as the people of Chad - should be allowed, even strongly encouraged, to do for themselves.

Regarding Iraq and Yugoslavia, negotiating an acceptable "exit from power" for their dictators - even if it involves distasteful compromise - might well end gross rights abuse faster and more effectively than a policy that clings to external threats of prosecution. Just ask the South Africans what worked for them.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va. She is the author of 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace' (University Press of Virginia).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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