How to spot a dictator

2009-09-26 12:41

AS the United Nations General Assembly convened this week, a high-level parade of actual and aspiring dictators arrived in New York. This is a good time for people of conscience to reflect on how to deal with dictators.

The United States government appears to have found a way that works for it: Libya is a case in point. Having long treated it as a pariah high on the terrorist list, the US began to rehabilitate Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after 2003, when Libya agreed not to seek nuclear weapons and to pay compensation for its implication in such crimes as the Lockerbie bombing.

The world will be seeing a lot of Libya this week. It was elected to hold the presidency of this year’s general assembly and presided over the meetings. Gaddafi participated in the historic Security Council summit chaired by Barack Obama. Yet there are few perceptible reforms within Libya as he celebrates his 40th year in power.

Many of us may find it difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong in such situations. How far should human rights advocates push their governments? Who decides when to protect a population, how and at what cost? In the month leading up to the US ­invasion of Iraq, many well-intentioned people, even those who expressed doubts about the Bush war objectives, said: “Saddam Hussein is a terrible dictator; we owe it to the Iraqis to do something.”

Those who still think so should take a moment to read the eloquent statement by Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at Bush and who was just released from prison last week. Iraqis were well aware of the oppression they lived under, he said, but the invasion and occupation “divided one brother from ­another. It turned our homes into never-ending funeral tents. And our graveyards spread into parks and roadsides. It is a plague”.

Clearly, invasion and occupation are not the way to deal with dictatorship. So what can ordinary citizens do?

Well, first, define your dictator. Respectable human rights organisations – ones that are not seen as Western-funded or guided – should come together to compile a citizen’s Good Government Index and rank governments accordingly. There are, of course, “freedom indices” that rank states based on some civil and political rights. The GGI could be broader and cover issues like corruption and progress in achieving development goals.

A state would not be allowed to claim the mantle of democracy if it privileged some ethnic or religious groups or was responsible for prolonged violations of human rights through occupation, as in the case of Israel. Acts of rendition and torture would count too.

Second, narrow the dictator’s reach. States that do not score above 60% on the GGI should not be considered for election to the Human Rights Council or to lead other world bodies. Concerned citizens would need to lobby to ensure that their countries voted only for states that rank higher on the index.

States really value international recognition. For example, in the heated race to head Unesco, the UN’s cultural ­organisation, Egypt is throwing its full weight into the ring. Arab press reports even claim that Egypt is promising to be “neutral” on settlements just to get Israel to withdraw its reservations.

Third, do business, but not as usual. No amount of internal repression will stop governments and corporations from doing business with non-democratic regimes. What concerned citizens should do is limit normal business dealings partly through citizen boycotts and partly by lobbying and media outreach. At a minimum, there should be a push for an arms boycott against repressive states.

For the GGI to work, citizens need to be better informed about foreign policy on an ongoing basis. That’s where a well-designed index produced by respected organisations would help. There have been some attempts to produce such an index. Since the number of dictators is growing, these ­attempts are worth pursuing. – The Nation

 Hijab is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies

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