Impunity

Throughout the world, the end results have been the same. Dictators who were overthrown either have the sympathy of the new strongman, or have entered ill health as to no longer be held accountable for their crimes… In record, I can count maybe one or two who were actually tried and executed for atrocities…

I was reading about the Newsweek article that followed on the years after Suharto’s fall. The tired Indonesian populace breathed a sigh of relief, and its students determined to rally for the government’s reform, and to prosecute Suharto for his and his family’s excesses. A year later, Wahid had been impeached, and Suharto remained free. Largely because of bouts of strokes and ill health, the courts had decided not to have the former dictator stand trial. He died early this year, with fellow strong man Lee Kuan Yew vouching for his great reputation.

Throughout the world, the end results have been the same. Dictators who were overthrown either have the sympathy of the new strongman, or have entered ill health as to no longer be held accountable for their crimes. Slobodan Milosevic, while standing trial in an International Court, escaped conviction through ill health. Augusto Pinochet and Ferdinand Marcos died without even any court having come to grips with them. Even Ugandan strongman, mutilator and cannibal, Idi Amin Dada, died in exile, but in Hawaii. As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, those who are comfortable ensconced in their island or country of choice, relate to the world how they accumulated wealth, or weren’t wrong, or did their best to their country (or worst). Ferdinand Marcos, during one of his interviews with an American news agency, revealed how he made sure that his ill-gotten wealth remained untraceable; he was gushing with pride.

In record, I can count maybe one or two who were actually tried and executed for atrocities.

We like to comfort ourselves with the thought that, at the very least, some of these dictators have fallen ill to painful or withering diseases. For those who do not—and they are many—we think that at least, they’re out of the country. But there’s something remiss about this thought; they escape retribution for playing executioner to thousands of dissidents and citizens, sometimes regardless of age or sex. They also leave a legacy of corruption, decadence, and almost irreparable moral collapse in their respective countries, such that it would decades for that country to recover.

The United Nations, and other international organizations, though in several conventions and conferences have drafted declarations and treaties against such atrocities, they nevertheless find them hard to apply: the strongmen beg off due to ill health, or like the major Nazi leaders, escape through suicide. The implications of this is apparent: these autocrats seem not to be living the overthrown, tyrant, at the mercy of those he persecuted, but merely as retired dictators, who in ill age have decided to find peace in the countryside (wherever that countryside is). They have acquired enough wealth as pension.

The UN, then, seems powerless to do any competent international political work, except in the humanitarian sense. Even worse, giving them this much impunity seems to imply the acquiescence of the country, to be inflicted more of the same in the future.

Admirable, then, are the stories of peoples who stood up against their dictators, sought them, made them stand trial and rendered swift justice. Nicolae Ceausescu, following the 1989 upheavals all throughout Eastern Europe, was seized by an angry populace, put to a two-hour trial, and shot with his wife. The Israeli Mossad, in what seemed an incredible story at the time, tracked the whereabouts of SS leader Adolf Eichmann all the way from Argentina, in 1972, and made to stand trial for crimes against humanity. The partisans in Italy captured and executed the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolinni in 1945, and displayed in an angry crowd hanging by his toes.

Of course, there is also Saddam Hussein, who in his time was strongman of Iraq, responsible for the murders of thousands of Kurds and Shiites. His execution was American-sanctioned, and though the Iraqi court tried him for war crimes and atrocities committed in his time, it was the blessings of the American overlords that made judgment possible.

It is a sad truth that most international courts trying these monsters drag their trials for years on end, until they pass the opportunity through deaths—natural causes or otherwise (it is said Pol Pot committed suicide to escape trial).

So yes, the world is not vigilant enough to do more than just condemn with words—however strong—the butchers in the name of ideology or simple barbarity. We’ve escaped the brutality of an Idi Amin, and the new autocrats are more infamous in greed than killings, as Suharto—though he did have his share of executions—but they nevertheless need to be held accountable, ill-health or no. If not to be executed, at least some form of punishment, as a gesture that no one can escape the judgment of law, or their wrongdoings. It’s an evidence of how strong they remain in their country, that their supporters make sure that they escape prosecution, and in their death are hailed as heroes. It makes not only a bad image, but a bad precedent as well: the ambitious ones will bid for power in the style of their local autocrats or dictators, ad infinitum.

In recent news, Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai dictator and economic genius, has come home to face trial. This is the perfect opportunity for the new Thai government to hold him accountable for the corruption and funds embezzled in his tenure. Or maybe, not. After all, there are rumors that elements of the Thai government are largely Thaksin-run. Like Suharto and Yeltsin before him, the trial could run for months and months, maybe years and years, and nothing happen. He might be accorded special housing privilege (like our own Joseph Estrada), and a pat on the back. He might even be greeted with cheers by his most ardent of supporters.

Alas, it makes one hope for a God; at least, they’ll get judgment there.

For further reference, read Postcard Headlines’ articles on Pinochet, Suharto and Castro. Reformers they may be, they were still executioners of hundreds. It also doesn’t help that one of the world’s “best democracies”–America and Israel–have committed their share of brutality, the former having atrocities dotting its history. And guess what? They’re still doing it. Read this, this and this article for some indication of it.

…Is nobody’s hands clean anymore?