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No Sanctuary for Dictators

Written by  Eugene R. Fidell

In 1986, when the then-dictator of Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier, finally fled,  I suggested that the international community needed to learn the important lesson that great violence may occur when a tyrant resists pressure to leave office. “What happens when a dictator finds it hard to leave,” I wrote, “because he has no place to go? One result is increased repression, as ever harsher steps prove necessary to crush or harass impatient local opponents.”  The solution, I suggested, was that “the world community should establish a formal machinery for facilitating the voluntary retirement of dictators.”  Peaceful departures are all too rare.

Passing quickly over my indefensible error of confusing Elba in the Mediterranean and St. Helena in the South Atlantic (an error that one of the New York Times’s gimlet-eyed readers was quick to point out),  the idea has been echoed repeatedly in the intervening quarterin century. Islands—even St. Helena, whose inhabitants have seemingly gotten tired of the place being used as a dumping ground —remain popular proposed venues for a tyrant’s refuge. For myself, as Baron Bramwell famously admitted, “the matter does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then.” I no longer believe there is a place for sanctuary in a moral world. Certainly things have changed since 1986. There are fewer tyrants, but the more important shift is in the general willingness of people to tolerate tyranny. This is evident in the increasingly violent Syrian revolt and the “Arab Spring.” Improvements in communications and connectivity have both stoked and deepened democratic aspirations. International institutions have emerged that can in theory put teeth into the struggle for accountability. An International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment, or even just the threat of one, may cause local support for a tyrant to dry up or may embolden opposition forces. In either case, it might arguably make it easier, and perhaps less bloody, to effect an ouster. Then again, prosecution of a leader may cause diehard followers to “rally ’round the flag,” as in the case of the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Which is the likelier outcome in any given situation is unfortunately little more than guesswork.

To my mind, the moral issue, particularly around the use of torture, trumps other considerations. Nevertheless, I offer this Essay as a thought experiment: is it possible to fashion a calculus to guide the formation of enduring policy for those inevitable occasions when democracies confront the hard choice of luring a dictator into safe retirement versus alternatives that are virtually certain to involve the massive loss of innocent life?