Fri, Mar 29, 2002 - Page 13 News List

We must dictate limits to dictators

An enforced international term limit could have spared the world from dictatorship and destabilization, most notably Robert Mugabe's 22 years in power in Zimbabwe

By Jeffrey D. Sachs


Robert Mugabe is an aging tyrant who is single-handedly destroying Zimbabwe's economy and social stability. Like many other tyrants, he seems ready to do anything to extend his 22 years in power, including resorting to violence and rigging elections. His corrupt cronies and military officials who benefitted during his lawless regime stand by him -- not only to preserve their own corrupt incomes, but also out of fear of the retribution that might follow their fall from power. Despite protests from the US and Europe about his thuggery, Mugabe has so far had his way.

Tyranny is of course one of the oldest political stories. But in an interconnected world, isn't it possible for the international community to do more to restrain tyrants in order to ensure a more stable global environment? A tricky question, no doubt. No country is ready to cede political sovereignty to outside powers or electoral monitors. Yet the high costs of tyranny spill over to the rest of the world, in the forms of uncontrolled disease, refugee movements, violence and criminality. The world has a stake in preventing the continued misrule of Mugabe and others like him.

One plausible idea is regional monitoring -- that a country's neighbors would help forestall such tyranny. This is plausible, since neighbors are the biggest direct losers when instability spills across borders. Yet neighbors are also the most fearful of challenging one of their own. So far, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been acquiescent in the face of Mugabe's abuses. If that silence continues, it will gravely undermine SADC institutions, and will cast a deep pall over the most important leader in SADC, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki.

Sanctions offer another approach. The US, Europe and other democracies should not continue to do "business as usual" with Zimbabwe. Mugabe and his henchmen have stashed millions of dollars abroad in the past year according to plausible press accounts. These accounts should be frozen, despite the difficulty of doing so in a world rife with secret banking and nominee accounts that disguise true ownership. Mugabe's phony elections, moreover, should go unrecognized, and Mugabe denied a welcome as a legitimate head of state in international gatherings.

Sanctions, however, are clumsy, costly and often ineffective. They are insufficient to stop abuses (after all, sanctions were threatened before the elections) and risk pushing Zimbabwe's economy deeper into crisis, hurting millions of innocent people, especially during a period of intensifying hunger and drought. Sanctions are also unlikely to secure wide acclamation. Africans will no doubt feel that their continent is being singled out unfairly when such abuses exist throughout the world.

An alternative approach, giving positive inducements to a tyrant to leave office, might work in some circumstances. Some long-time leaders have been coaxed from office through blandishments, high-profile international positions, or even amnesties and comfortable exiles in safe locations.

A more general -- perhaps more powerful -- approach is for the international community to agree on general, enforceable political standards. One such standard, which might conceivably win international consent, would be an "international term limit" on heads of government. The world community would agree that no individual should serve as the head of government (president, prime minister, or other equivalent position) for more than "X" years. International agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF would automatically stop making loans to countries where the head of government exceeds that limit.

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