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African Dictators Can Run, But They Can't Hide

12/02/2017 21:43 | Updated 13 February 2017

African states prepare for a mass withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC). They claim that the world's first permanent Court has punished only African leaders, while letting crimes committed by Western powers around the world go unpunished. While it is true that so far the ICC has only ever charged African criminals, the withdrawal plan has more to do with the global landscape shifting under dictators' feet. African autocrats are increasingly facing arrest, extradition, prosecution and a shrinking space for safe exile.

Gambia's longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh stepped down on January 21 only after he found asylum in a neighbouring country that doesn't recognise the ICC's jurisdiction, namely Equatorial Guinea. He also received a golden parachute from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States. In a joint declaration, they pledged "dignity, respect, security and rights" for the ousted ruler and his family.

One would argue that with such deals, the international community is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, it claims to promote democracy. On the other, it encourages despots to grab power, abuse citizens' rights, steal public funds and enjoy dignified exits. However, ushering ruthless rulers into exile is a long tradition that has undoubtedly contributed to preventing and ending senseless wars.

Five years ago, the toppled President Zineddine Ben Ali found exile in Saudi Arabia, sparing Tunisians greater chaos and bloodshed. Offering Charles Taylor exile in Nigeria has also contributed to ending Liberia's civil war. Similarly, the former Ethiopian ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam found asylum in Zimbabwe, which helped resolve Ethiopian civil war.

Authoritarian regimes, however, haven't been the main hosts for toppled rulers. This is a major finding of a recent research by Abel Escribà-Folch and Daniel Krcmaric, which examined the destinations of 98 ex-dictators who went into exile between 1946 and 2012. The research found that "the leading destinations include the US with eleven exiled dictators, the USSR/Russia and the UK with seven each, Argentina with six, and France with five."

But the good old days when dethroned dictators could retire in the French Rivera are gone. The study's most significant finding is that since the end of the cold war, defeated despots have been struggling to find safe havens, especially in the West. This shift is mainly due to the mushrooming of human rights organizations and international courts, including the ICC.

Under public and media scrutiny, Western democracies have been slowly turning against their protégées. France, a long-time refuge for world dictators, refused Ben Ali's request to land in its territory, forcing him to turn around and head to Saudi Arabia. The incident came to symbolise the dictators' desperate search for a safe landing space.

In another remarkable volte-face, the United States brokered Charles Taylor's exile deal into Nigeria only to end up pressuring the host country to turn him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. As for Belgium, it went so far as to taking Senegal to court over Hissene Habre and forcing it to prosecute Chad's notorious dictator.

Nowadays, rulers who have blood on their hands are likely to end up behind bars when the halls of power close. When Laurent Gbagbo, former Ivory Coast president, was hauled from his bunker and sent to the Hague, it served notice to tyrants that they can run, but can no longer hide.

It is precisely the threat of facing justice that may have weighted in Muammar Qaddafi's rejection of the asylum offer made by Uganda - a party to the ICC - while being investigated. His decision to stay and fight to death turned out to be a kiss of death for Libya. It also made many wonder if the ICC is a victory for justice or a defeat of peace.

I remember how several UN colleagues used to argue in private that the Court has made it harder to end wars by removing dictators. They believed that the threat of prosecution will only make the ICC-wanted rulers cling to power, commit more atrocities and fight until the bitter end.

This is the opinion held by Alex de Waal and Julie Flint, two of the UK's top experts on Sudan and ICC critics. They strongly opposed the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on the grounds that it would ruin years of diplomatic negotiations and delay peace.

Whether peace should be negotiated with genocidaires is a matter of debate. What is clear, however, dictators stand a chance of being prosecuted only after they are toppled or abandoned by their protectors.

As for shielded war criminals such as al-Bashir, they can run, but there are fewer places to hide.

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