The world’s most wanted despots
Political wrangling often stymies international courts, but wheels of justice starting to turn more rapidly
Foreign Affairs Reporter
From Osama to Radovan, the global public is on first-name terms with many of the usual suspects wanted for appalling international crimes.
But dozens of others never make the indictment list of any international court. And some, accused of gruesome attacks on innocent civilians, are unknown quantities outside their own countries.
It’s easier to point fingers than to indict war criminals. Political wrangling stymies international courts from signing warrants against mass murderers, torturers and directors of violence that shatters millions of lives.
In an ideal world, a list of the worst dictators would be a template for future trials. North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Burma’s junta leader Than Shwe, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov would top the roster.
They preside over countries where some of the most horrific abuses of human rights have taken place. But few, if any, will end up in the dock of an international court.
“There’s the wish list, and the reality check,” says Param-Preet Singh, Human Rights Watch’s counsel in international justice.
“There is always the possibility of justice, but without political will, it is much harder to deliver.”
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was a rare exception. He was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court – a surprise move that could shake up other brutal rulers.
Bashir’s campaign against Darfur rebels in western Sudan led to rape, torture and murder of thousands of civilians, on a scale the U.S. calls genocide.
A groundswell of public outrage against the atrocities committed in Darfur propelled Bashir’s indictment, which wasn’t opposed by any of the powerful members of the United Nations Security Council who have a veto over cases referred to the international court.
But Mugabe, protected by China, Russia and South Africa – a non-permanent council member – would be an unlikely prisoner.
If a warrant were issued, arresting him would be close to impossible.
“There’s no tribunal police force,” Singh notes. “And if there were, it would still be dependent on national security forces to do its job.”
Arresting a dictator in power is unprecedented. And the apprehension of former strongmen may give pause to those who are considering stepping down.
A UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone seized Liberia’s Charles Taylor and sent him to The Hague after he gave up the presidency under international pressure and fled to Nigeria.
Former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was turned over to an international tribunal after he was ousted by reformers. Fugitive Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was nabbed after 13 years in hiding. And former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet spent his last years under house arrest in his home country, accused of dozens of human rights violations after overthrowing Salvador Allende in 1973.
The looming scales of justice may have convinced Mugabe to cling to power for the rest of his life.
And the aging Than Shwe, reportedly ailing, shows no sign of handing over the reins to a successor.
Some in the West also worry that indicting heads of state sets an uncomfortable precedent.
There have been calls for war crimes trials of U.S. President George W. Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair, who backed the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, sparking a bloody civil war.
But Washington’s opposition to the international court has quashed any move to indict them.
Further down the political chain, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger has been accused of committing war crimes in Indochina, Bangladesh, East Timor and Chile, also without effect.
In the U.S., a well-publicized list of most wanted terror suspects has made men like Ramzi Yousef, convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, household names.
Other countries’ bêtes noires are more obscure, despite the horrible crimes of which they are accused.
India has called for the extradition of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, its chief suspect in the 1991 murder of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and numerous other serious crimes.
Israel’s most wanted list includes dozens of Palestinian militants, accused of planning and carrying out deadly attacks. Several have been assassinated, including leaders of the militant faction Hamas.
Russia’s most wanted, Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, was killed in an explosion after fighting two wars against Moscow and carrying out catastrophic attacks on civilians.
Hundreds of suspects are still at large in dozens of countries. But, says Singh, the international courts’ wheels of justice are turning more rapidly than ever – in spite of political stumbling blocks.
“More and more, international justice is a powerful tool. Milosevic, Taylor, Karadzic are people who even 15 years ago would never have been brought to justice. It shows that with political will, anything is possible.”
President of Sudan, accused by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor of genocide and other crimes against the people of Darfur. Bashir, 64, was born in northern Sudanese village. A career military man, he came to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, imposed Islamic law and fought bloody wars against opponents in the south and west of the country.
Where is he now?
In his presidential palace in Khartoum, where he denies any guilt for atrocities. A heavily guarded authoritarian ruler, he’s unlikely to be arrested soon.
An ethnic Serb born in Croatia 50 years ago, Hadzic was elected president of the breakaway Repubic of Serbian Krajina, seized from Croatia by Serbs who opposed the breakup of Yugoslavia. He’s accused of atrocities including the 1991 massacre of 250 non-Serbs seized in the Croatian town of Vukovar.
Where is he now?
The glum Hadzic has been reported hiding in an Orthodox monastery in a northern Serbian village, and in a town on the picturesque Montenegrin coast.
OSAMA BIN LADEN
Now 51, he’s the son of a wealthy Saudi family who became a militant jihadist and power behind the Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, as well as kingpin of the Al Qaeda network and mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.
Where is he now?
Bin Laden has the money and contacts to remain on the lam where few can follow. Sightings were reported in Afghanistan and on the Pakistan border.
As chief of the Bosnian Serb army, Mladic is accused of working with Radovan Karadzic to ethnically cleanse non-Serbs from Bosnia. He was in charge during the seige of Sarajevo and the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.
Where is he now?
Sightings have been reported in Belgrade, Montenegro and Bosnia. Other reports say the 66-year-old suffers from a serious heart condition or died after a stroke.
MULLAH MOHAMMED OMAR
Chief of the Taliban movement and former head of its extreme Islamist regime in Afghanistan. Omar, 49, is a mystery man who seldom communicates with the outside world. Born in Kandahar, he fought against Russia and Western troops, losing an eye in battle.
Where is he now?
In hiding, possibly in Pakistan, Omar is said to have discarded his signature beard and turban for more Western dress. Some reports place him in the northwestern town of Quetta, where he is said to be an imam.