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The Justice Dilemma: Exile in an Era of Accountability

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Leaders who refuse to step down after wearing out their welcome represent a thorny problem. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro is the latest example. Maduro refuses to give up power even as Venezuelans take to the streets to protest against his rule and the international community increasingly recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.

A cushy exile for Maduro, however, has been floated as a potential solution to Venezuela’s leadership crisis. One regional publication, for example, published an article asking, “Where Will Maduro End Up?” Moreover, during his brief tenure as Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton expressed hope that the situation in Venezuela could be defused by Maduro taking “a long, quiet retirement… on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela.”

This sort of thinking raises questions about using exile to coax embattled leaders out of office. My book, The Justice Dilemma: Leaders and Exile in an Era of Accountability, provides some answers.

I illustrate how exile traditionally offered an attractive escape route for unpopular rulers. Back in the old days, rulers regularly took this international exit option. Though they gave up power at home, leaders could safely live out their years abroad—typically in a luxurious setting. For instance, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos retired to Hawaii, Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier decamped for the French Riviera, and Uganda’s Idi Amin settled into a Saudi Arabian villa. Thus, exile historically provided an attractive “golden parachute” for embattled leaders.

But something has changed recently. Many leaders—think of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, and Syria’s Bashar Assad—seem far less willing to go into exile. Instead, they cling to power until the bitter end, sometimes even fighting until they are killed or captured. Compared to past rulers, why have contemporary despots been so reluctant to give up power and retire abroad?

Compared to past rulers, why have contemporary despots been so reluctant to give up power and retire abroad?

In The Justice Dilemma, I argue that the growing trend toward holding leaders accountable for atrocity crimes irrespective of national borders complicates the exile option. Whereas past leaders—even notoriously brutal ones—could retire abroad without fear of prosecution, the advance of international justice makes a safe post-tenure exile conditional on how leaders behaved while in power. Specifically, culpable leaders (those who presided over mass atrocities) now have to worry that fleeing abroad will eventually land them in a jail cell.

Undermining the exile option for culpable leaders creates a “justice dilemma.” On the one hand, culpable leaders now have a hard time finding safe havens. This creates incentives to fight to the bitter end, as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi did. But on the other hand, the threat of prosecution dissuades some leaders from committing human rights violations in the first place. In other words, when dealing with problematic leaders, there is a difficult trade-off between ending today’s conflicts and deterring tomorrow’s abuses.

*Featured photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.


Daniel Krcmaric is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @DanKrcmaric.

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