How good it is to see genocidal and corrupt dictators brought to justice

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Most of the time, the idea that dictators the world over might be brought to justice seems a daydream of John Lennon-style idealism. Then something like this happens: the Indonesian attorney-general brought charges of corruption yesterday against former president Suharto. This is not the usual style of transition from military dictatorship to democracy. Normally, the despot is granted lifetime immunity from prosecution and retains use of a small private army to guard the retirement hacienda. (Either that or he ends up with a bullet through the head, like Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.)

Most of the time, the idea that dictators the world over might be brought to justice seems a daydream of John Lennon-style idealism. Then something like this happens: the Indonesian attorney-general brought charges of corruption yesterday against former president Suharto. This is not the usual style of transition from military dictatorship to democracy. Normally, the despot is granted lifetime immunity from prosecution and retains use of a small private army to guard the retirement hacienda. (Either that or he ends up with a bullet through the head, like Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.)

The situation in Indonesia has been chaotic since the popular uprising which dislodged Suharto two years ago, with each hopeful sign offset by mayhem and brutality. The Indonesian military pulled out of East Timor, illegally annexed by Suharto in 1975, but left behind a scorched earth of terror. As the weak centre tried to establish the democratic rule of law, the separatist tensions in parts of the country have unleashed violence between ethnic and religious groups, most bloodily in the Moluccas (Spice Islands).

The idea that the Indonesians themselves might bring Suharto to justice always seemed far-fetched; that it should be now happening so soon after his downfall is extraordinary.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, and assuming that the Chilean supreme court judges hold to their reported views, General Pinochet seems set to be stripped of the legal immunity granted when he stepped down 10 years ago. If this decision, by the narrowest possible margin of 11-9, is confirmed, it offers the prospect of justice finally being done, after Jack Straw ducked his moral responsibility earlier this year by ruling that Pinochet was unfit to stand trial. Of course, the Chilean courts may arrive at the same ruling, but the account of his years of terror and torture will be more convincingly settled by the Chilean nation itself, than by international jurisdiction.

Similarly, Suharto may escape punishment if his lawyer's plea that "a person who cannot explain his thoughts should not be put on trial" is accepted. But the principle that former rulers are not above the law is important. The development of international law, and the growing prospect of enforcing basic human rights against genocidal tyrants, has been one of the real dividends of the end of the Cold War. One of the more admirable aspects of the Blair government's foreign policy has been its attempts to realise this prospect in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

How much better, however, if peoples can bring their own oppressors to account. Nato was justified in defending the Kosovo Albanians against the murderous attentions of Slobodan Milosevic. If the Serbian president were to make a trip to London to do some shopping at Books Etc, he would be whisked off to The Hague on war crimes charges before he could say "Srebrenica". But if the Serb people were to try to punish him, that would be a far healthier and more hopeful exercise.

The examples of Indonesia and Chile offer hope that, one day, Saddam Hussein could be brought to justice by the people of Iraq, or Robert Mugabe by the people of Zimbabwe (although the pressure brought to bear on him by Thabo Mbeki of South Africa this week was welcome).

If former presidents Suharto and Pinochet have to face the music, no dictator will be able to sleep easy in his bed.

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