Forget Milosevic and Saddam. The trial of a former dictator to watch is that of Liberia's Charles Taylor. At least this is the trial the world's other despots -- and their oppressed subjects -- will be following the most closely.
In a deal brokered by Nigeria in August last year, Taylor was granted asylum in exchange for renouncing power. This was done despite his being indicted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed special court in Sierra Leone. He is accused of arming and training the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels in exchange for "blood diamonds" during the country's civil war. Because of the indictment, Nigeria has been under increasing international pressure to hand over Taylor to the court.
The asylum guarantee is also under domestic attack. Two Nigerian men -- mutilated in Sierra Leone by the rebels Taylor is accused of supporting -- are challenging the asylum in a Nigerian court. They argue that under international law asylum should not be given to war criminals. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, however, responds that he gained international agreement on the asylum deal, and so international strictures do not apply. He insists that the right thing for the country to do is to honor its promise to Taylor.
This case comes up again September 15.
This in itself is an important debate. The president argues that justice lies in keeping your word -- irrespective of who it's given to. The other side counters that the justice of an evil man being held accountable for his crimes trumps the other "justice."
But this isn't only about Taylor. What happens in this case has direct ramifications for other despots -- and naturally their populations as well. If Nigeria is forced to break its promise to Taylor, other dictators will inevitably second-guess any offer to step down on a promise of asylum. Such offers will be seen as ploys to remove them from power, after which they're at the mercy of their hosts -- who can be forced to break their word.
Tyrants will therefore calculate that they are safest remaining in power in their own country. They'll hold onto power for as long as they can -- destroying their country and killing thousands in the process if need be. Handing over Taylor therefore means that millions around the world living unbearable lives will have less chance of ever being freed in a bloodless transition of power. The only way out will be rebellion or outside intervention.
As Mike McGovern -- West Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group -- told me: "It's a bridge we are only going to cross in one direction. If Taylor's extradited there is no reason to believe any African leader will again accept asylum, and we will get people in the future like Charles Taylor who will fight to the death."
This argument doesn't dispose of the issue entirely, however.
But considering the ramifications, what should be done with Taylor depends on what the Free World is prepared to do in the future with other dictators. If it is prepared to go around the world one by one removing them and freeing their people -- then hand over Taylor. It won't matter that other despots won't believe asylum promises, because the choice for them will be clear: reform and introduce democracy or face removal.
If on the other hand the Free World is not prepared to remove tyrannical dictators, then Taylor shouldn't be handed over to the court. Otherwise it means the populations of those dictators that won't be removed are condemned to a life of oppression with no respite. If the Free World isn't prepared to liberate them, how dare it rule out their only other path to freedom in the name of seeking justice against one man, however despicable?
The lack of consensus on Saddam, Kim Jong Il, etc., indicates there's little chance of any worldwide agreement on such matters.
Economic and geopolitical interests at the moment often trump freeing oppressed people. Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that those powers that are prepared to remove despots already have their hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They certainly can't afford to immerse themselves in African politics, he says.
Therefore "the most pragmatic option would be for Nigeria to keep its word to Taylor."
Upholding the Taylor-asylum deal doesn't mean we are agreeing to let any dictator in the future walk free. The Free World can refuse to cut deals with some and insist they face justice. And in some cases, a former dictator's being punished is essential for the country to move on and rebuild. But this is something that has to be made clear beforehand -- not after an immunity deal. Keeping the promise made to Taylor -- however odious it is that he may escape punishment -- preserves the ability to act in this ad hoc manner with despots in the future.
Unless world leaders have secretly committed themselves to a new dictator-removal policy, the asylum promise should be upheld.
Those involved in this case -- including those international players pressuring Nigeria -- should remember Zimbabwe's Mugabe, Libya's Gadhafi, Syria's Assad, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Burma's Shwe, Cuba's Castro et al will be watching very closely. As will their populations.