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The Rule of Law: A Few Victories

10 August 2010

The Rule of Law: A Few Victories

By Gwynne Dyer

Naomi Campbell may be dim-witted and self-centred, and the poor schmuck she gave the diamonds to thirteen years ago is in deep trouble even though he never tried to turn them into cash, but she certainly is useful. If she hadn’t been forced to testify, nine out of ten people wouldn’t even know who Charles Taylor is.

See? It worked. Unless you were on Mars last week, you already know that Taylor, the former Liberian strongman, is on trial at The Hague on charges of terrorism, murder, rape, enslavement and torture. You know it because the star-struck Taylor gave Campbell some illegal “blood diamonds” when they were both Nelson Mandela’s guests in South Africa in 1997, and because Mia Farrow (who was also there) eventually blew the whistle on her.

It’s not a story about war crimes, it’s a media feeding frenzy about celebrities. When Campbell gave her evidence to the international court in The Hague, the number of journalists covering the trial jumped tenfold. But she has served her purpose: now everybody knows that Charles Taylor has been brought to trial for killing, torturing and maiming hundreds of thousands of his fellow Africans.

He is the first former African head of state ever to face an international court for the crimes he committed. There are a dozen others, many still in office, who deserve to stand beside him, and most of them never will. But the rule of law never meant that all the wicked people get punished. At best, some are caught and punished, and with luck most of the rest moderate their behaviour to avoid the same fate.

Even in long-established states, the rule of law is constantly being challenged and subverted. In the international sphere, heads of state and other senior government officials were basically immune to prosecution until recently – but Taylor’s trial is an encouraging sign, and it is not the only one.

In Cambodia, another United Nations-backed tribunal delivered its first verdict last month, sentencing former prison boss Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch”, to 35 years in jail. Duch was a minor official in the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and killed about a quarter of the population, but more senior officials will follow.

Duch came first because he ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where the lucky inmates were only tortured for a week or two before they were murdered. Seventeen thousand went in; seven survived. Thirty-five years of prison seems too short, and the judge actually commuted it to 19 years because of time already served. But Duch will be 86 years old in 19 years – and anyway the sentence is far less important than the fact that there was a trial.

Later this year, the trials of the real leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime will begin: head of state Khieu Samphan, deputy prime minister Nuon Chea (“Brother Number Two”), foreign minister Ieng Sary, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the minister of social affairs. (“Brother Number One,” Pol Pot, died in 1998.) No penalty can match their crimes, but at least they will finally face a court.

If you seek perfect justice, you’ll have to die first. In the real world, bringing the powerful to justice generally involves a certain amount of bargaining. Take Turkey, where the government announced on 9 August that 102 military officers accused of plotting a coup against the democratic order would not be arrested after all. In strictly legal terms it was a deeply unsatisfactory outcome. In practical terms, it was the best outcome imaginable.

Turkey is no Liberia or Cambodia. It is a state with centuries of history as an empire, and over half a century as a democracy. But it was always a country where the armed forces felt that they had the final veto.

Four democratically elected Turkish governments have been overthrown by the military in the past fifty years. When the current government, whose appeal is strongest to devoutly Muslim voters, was first elected in 1992, many soldiers felt that they had to “defend the secular state” again.

They were wrong, but much of the senior officer corps got involved in discussions about a coup code-named “sledgehammer”. It never happened, but years later the story came out. The rule of law was at stake, so the government arrested some senior soldiers.

This was unprecedented in Turkey, where the military have always been sacrosanct. More arrests followed, some trials got underway, and everybody held their breath waiting to see what the military would do. Answer: they nominated a general who had been implicated in the coup discussions as the chief of the land forces

So the government announced that 102 more officers, including 25 generals and admirals, would be arrested. After a tense staring match, the military backed down. A different officer, not implicated in “sledgehammer,” will now become the land forces chief – and the 102 arrests were cancelled.

If you want the flawless enforcement of laws that rise above human politics, don’t look for it here – and even less in Liberia or Cambodia. But if you would like to see the rule of law advance in the world, however haltingly, then take heart.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Duch…trial”; and “Turkey…veto”)

Maoists of Nepal

26 August 2004

The Maoists of Nepal

By Gwynne Dyer

“If we have a Pol Pot scenario, this would be extremely destabilising for the region,” said a Western diplomat in Nepal when the last ceasefire went into effect in early 2003. “India would probably come in and that would upset the Chinese and Pakistan and who knows what would happen.” Unfortunately, we may soon find out what would happen next, because the Maoist rebels in Nepal may be only a year or two away from victory.

The ceasefire of 2003 is long over, and the insurgents already control almost half the country. On 18 August they declared a blockade of the capital, and for a week almost nothing and nobody moved on the roads in or out of the Kathmandu valley (population 1.5 million). Then they lifted the blockade and let the city have fresh food again — but not because they had to. They didn’t even have to put road-blocks on the highways; they closed them by threats alone. They can do it again whenever they want.

Nepal is one of the few countries where you are tempted to say that reform is impossible and revolution is necessary. All but perhaps half a million of its 24 million people lead lives of grinding poverty (per capita income $220 a year), and nothing any government does changes the picture one bit. A Maoist-led peasant revolution sounds hopelessly out of date in the 21st century, but Nepalese peasants don’t live in the 21st century. For the most part, they live in the Middle Ages, with feudalism defining their lives.

There have been attempts at reform from above in Nepal, but they all quickly ran out of steam. Mass demonstrations in 1990 forced King Birendra to allow multi-party democracy, but it never really worked since all the major parties were led by people from the old elite who saw them simply as another opportunity to feather their nests. Then the king and most of his family were massacred in 2001 by the crown prince, a young man called Dipendra who was high on drink and drugs and cross about being forbidden to marry the woman of his choice. He shot himself, too.

When the shooting stopped, the last man standing was Gyanendra, brother to Birendra and now king in his stead. The trouble is that most ordinary Nepalese were very fond of Birendra and suspect Gyanendra of conspiring at his death. (It’s almost certainly untrue, but it is a measure of his unpopularity.)

Indeed, the only thing that inspires much loyalty to the 55-year-old Gyanendra is the fact that if he dies — and male members of the Nepali ruling family generally die of heart attacks before they turn 50 — then he will be succeeded by his bratty son Paras, who shows no more interest or concern for the real Nepal than his socialite friends.

King Gyanendra suspended Nepal’s shoddy democracy two years ago, and has since ruled through prime ministers appointed from the small pro-monarchy party. He has also turned the Nepalese army loose on the rebels, causing a steep rise in the killing. (Ten thousand have died since the guerrilla war began in 1996, but at least half of those were killed in the past two years.)

The Nepalese army once made a living by leasing itself out to the UN for peacekeeping missions, but US military aid and advisers, attracted to Nepal by the notion that it is part of a war against “terrorism,” are rapidly converting it into a duplicate of those Latin American armies that suppress peasant revolts in the Andes. In its 2003 report, Amnesty International said that “the security forces continued to carry out unlawful killings. It was estimated that of the more than 4,000 ‘Maoists’ officially declared as killed since 2001, nearly half may have been unlawfully killed.” That is to say, shot while in custody, shot by mistake, shot as an example to others, or just randomly shot to make the army’s numbers look better.

The Maoists could well win in Nepal — but that would be a much bigger disaster, for they belong to the same tradition of ultra-egalitarian and anti-foreign extremism that animated the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Sendero Luminoso (the “Shining Path”) in Peru. Mercifully, the latter group never attained power, but between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge murdered about a quarter of Cambodia’s population in a drive to exterminate everybody who was a “class enemy” or had been exposed to foreign influences.

“Comrade Prachandra,” the 42-year-old ex-horticulture teacher who is the Nepali Maoists’ leader, never gives interviews, but deputy leader Baburam Bhattarai (whose PhD thesis was a Marxist analysis of Nepal’s problems) was chilling when asked whether his movement’s policies would really be similar to those of the Khmer Rouge: “There is no independent and authentic account of events in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge available so far. Whatever is emanating from the Western media appears to be highly exaggerated.” In other words, yes, they are the same.

If the Maoists win, an early Indian intervention might spare the Nepalese population the worst horrors of a Khmer Rouge-style genocide, but only at the cost to India of a long and thankless guerrilla war in Nepal plus serious international complications with China. Nepal is heading straight for hell, and nobody in the country seems remotely capable of stopping it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Nepal…lives”; and”The Nepalese army…better”)