The twilight of the tyrants

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

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.

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.

The world seems to be growing less tolerant of dictators, and readier to hold them accountable for their crimes. The United Nations now has special war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone, and is creating a special court for Cambodia.

"It's becoming riskier to be a dictator and engage in gross abuses of human rights," argues Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute, founded by financier George Soros to encourage democracy around the world.

A growing number of former heads of state have been indicted or put on trial, he points out, including Mr. Milosevic, Argentine Generals Rafael Videla and Leopoldo Galtieri, Liberian leader Charles Taylor, Chadian dictator Hissan Habre, and Jean Kambanda, a former Rwandan prime minister, who was convicted of genocide.

Not that this necessarily means demo- cratic values are closely enough woven into the fabric of modern societies that dictatorships are heading for extinction, suggests Fareed Zakaria, an author and former editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

"The kind, of regimes that Saddam Hussein or Hitler ran are a thing of the past," he says. "But there is a sort of netherworld now - it's uncomfortable to be a dictator, but that doesn't mean democracy has triumphed," complete with all the institutions that support it.

"There is not deep democracy in many parts of the world," agrees Mr. Neier, pointing to Latin America, where "it seems awfully fragile" - in part because many newly elected leaders have disappointed their voters by imposing economic austerity measures. The economic upheavals that have shaken Russia since the end of communism, leaving millions feeling worse off than in the old days, have given democracy a bad name there, too.

Elsewhere, notably in the former Soviet Union's Central Asian republics, politicians have won elections (not always fairly) but then done nothing to develop other building blocks of democracy, such as a free press and an independent judiciary.

"They are elected autocrats," says Mr. Zakaria, referring to leaders such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev. "Maybe that's the form new dictatorship takes, through leaders who have found a way to use the symbols of legitimacy of the modern age. They embrace one element of democracy - elections - and forgo all the others." And then, often enough, they resort to rigging elections.

"The one indicator you have that a country is democratic is rotation in office - the unseating of leaders within a decade," says Mr. Ackerman.

One leader who recently failed that test was Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze. He was forced from office last month by a peaceful uprising, after more than ten years in power, when he tried to rig parliamentary elections. Behind the scenes, US diplomats helped convince Mr. Shevardnardze to go, in line with Washington's declared policy of helping to spread democracy throughout the world, and to see off its remaining dictators.

That has by no means always been the case, as Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, the Shah of Iran and Indonesia's General Suharto - all dictators installed and maintained with US assistance - well knew.

President Bush admitted, in a speech last month to the National Endowment for Democracy, to "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East."

Those days, he promised, were over. But Berhanu Nega, for one, remains to be convinced. "Countries that claim to believe in democracy cater to dictators in the name of national security," complains Mr. Nega, who heads the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Centre in Addis Ababa.

"That is the most unfortunate thing that is happening to Africa."

At the same time, he charges, Washington picks and chooses its targets when it comes to pressing autocrats. "If they don't like a government, such as Mugabe's, then democracy becomes the whipping instrument," says Nega. "They don't use it against governments they do like."

Such governments include Ethiopia's ruling People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which claimed to have won 97 percent of the vote at the last elections, but has the virtue in American eyes of having offered support for the US 'war on terror,' as has Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov.

"That is one thing making Africans cynical about Western intentions," argues Nega. "You don't see any principled, consistent policy by the developed countries to push for democracy in Africa."

Mr. Palmer, the former US diplomat, who has just published the book "Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025," agrees.

"The key question is, have we actually changed? and I don't see any hard evidence beyond the rhetorical statements," he says. When the Saudi Arabian authorities arrested several hundred people protesting in Riyadh for greater political freedoms inOctober, Palmer recalls, "the State Department did nothing and said nothing."

Even critics of Western attitudes to "friendly dictators" acknowledge, though, that realpolitik is real. "You can say the US is hypocritical and motivated by its national interest, but sometimes, idiosyncratically, haphazardly, it does act altruistically," says Zakaria. "You do these things when you can, when they don't exact too much of a price."

Palmer would like to change that, to make the disposal of dictators one of the cornerstones of US foreign policy. But the role of outsiders, he insists, must primarily be to aid local people fighting their own battles to depose their despots.

"I really believe in people power supported by the outside," he says. "When that kind of power brings about change, you don't have the mess we've got in Iraq, where legitimacy [of the US-installed government] is in doubt."

This kind of thinking, says Mr. Karatnycky of Freedom House, suits a new intellectual mood abroad in the world, in which governments can no longer hide behind the notion of sacrosanct national sovereignty to escape condemnation for their actions.

That mood is fed both by US advocates of greater American intervention around the world to spread American values while defending American interests, and by European liberal activists such as Dr. Kouchner, who first developed the theory of 'humanitarian interference' to justify saving people from abusive leaders, as in Kosovo.

"There are more interesting forms of international intervention than the use of military force," notes Ackerman. Milosevic's departure was bloodless because repressive security forces dropped their loyalty to his government.

"We have to tell dictators that if they don't let their people communicate freely, we won't let them communicate outside their countries, that if they won't allow their people to travel, we won't let them travel," Ackerman argues. "As people understand that dictators have tremendous vulnerabilities that can be exploited non-violently, the international community will get more innovative."

How that might work is unclear when over Iraq "the United Nations is impotent, the Europeans cannot agree among themselves, and the Americans act alone messianically," says Kouchner. "When Europe and America act together, it works," as in Kosovo, he adds. "When America acts alone, it works less well."

Washington may not be best placed to pressure dictators on its own, as international discord over its invasion of Iraq suggested. Many world leaders doubted the Bush administration's motives for the war.

"I fear that other actions of the United States that have inspired heightened anti-Americanism in the world has tarnished democracy if it is espoused by an administration that is so disliked," Neier says.

But Palmer is undeterred. "These dictators need us more than we need them," he insists. "If we run after them they go on repressing their peoples which creates more problems and more terrorism.

"We need to go from rhetorical positions to action," he adds. "This is not just a feelgood human rights priority. This is now a national security priority."

The mighty who have fallen

Eduard Shevardnadze*

Elected president of Georgia in 1995, Shevardnadze resigned amid protests last month about a widely disputed parliamentary election.

Charles Taylor

During his six years as president of Liberia, Taylor battled insurgents and sold arms to rebels in Sierra Leone. He was indicted for war crimes last June by a United Nations tribunal in Sierra Leone, and is now living in exile in Nigeria.

Slobodan Milosevic

Milosevic, former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, was overthrown in 2000 after his rejection of election results led to mass demonstrations. He was indicted in 1999 for war crimes committed in Kosovo, and he is now on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on charges of abuse of power and corruption.


Elected president of Indonesia in 1967, Suharto used his power to enrich his family and suppress dissent, resulting in his forced resignation in 1998. Charges of corruption were dismissed for health reasons.

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte

Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, became commander-in-chief of the army until 1998, when he was arrested in London at Spain's request on charges of murder and terrorism. He was released for health reasons and resigned as senator in 2002.

Mobutu Sese Seko

At the helm of Zaire from 1930 to 1997, Seko grew rich through economic exploitation and corruption, leading to his expulsion from the country by rebel forces.

Nicolae Ceausescu

Ceausescu became communist leader of Romania in 1965, established a brutal police state, and was ousted and executed on Christmas Day 1989.

Manuel Noriega

Initially a US ally, Noriega was de facto military leader of Panama from 1983 to 1989, when he was overthrown by the United States. Three years later, he was tried and imprisoned for drug and racketeering violations.

Ferdinand Marcos

Marcos's presidency was marred with widespread corruption and political mismanagement. An attempt to rig an election in 1986 resulted in major public backlash, ending Marco's 21-year rule of the Philippines.

Jean-Claude Duvalier

"Baby Doc" Duvalier assumed the presidency of Haiti in 1971 upon the death of his father, Francois Duvalier, and was ousted by protesters in 1986 for political and economic repression.

Idi Amin

Military leader of Uganda for eight years, Amin persecuted ethnic groups and political enemies, and was forced from power in 1979 by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan nationalists.

Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power from Pahlevi, who ascended to the throne of Iran in 1941 and fled the country 38 years later in response to massive protest against his brutal, secular, and pro-Western regime.

* Shevardnadze's rule was characterized by repression and corruption more than violence against his population.

Still in power

Freedom House's list of the world's eight "worst" regimes, determined by their repression of civil liberties and political rights.

Than Shwe, BURMA

Corruption is reportedly rampant among Burma's ruling junta, led by General Shwe, which intrudes on all aspects of Burmese life and has committed a range of human rights abuses.

Fidel Castro, CUBA

Life in Cuba, ruled by Mr. Castro, the world's most enduring dictator, is essentially controlled by the state, and political dissent is a punishable offense.

Muammar Qaddafi, LIBYA

Hostile toward the West and a sponsor of terrorism, Colonel Qaddafi rules by decree and denies Libyans a range of basic rights.

Kim Jong Il, North Korea

Mr. Kim runs one of the most tightly controlled nations in the world.

He denies basic rights, holds thousands of political prisoners, and executes opponents.

Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, SAUDI ARABIA

Under King Fahd, Saudi citizens face arbitrary arrest and are denied freedom of expression and assembly.

Omar al-Bashir, SUDAN

Rattled by a civil war, Sudanese are subject to serious human-rights abuses.

Bashar al-Assad, SYRIA

President Assad's Baathist regime has kept Syria under a repressive and corrupt political system, following in the footsteps of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who brutally repressed dissent.

Saparmurat Niyazov, TURKMENISTAN

Under President Niyazov, well known for his cult of personality, Turkmenistan has widespread corruption and pervasive human-rights abuses.

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