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Is it better to let dictators retire in peace?

The moral answer is obvious – dictators should be prosecuted – but granting amnesty has some advanta

While attention has been focused on whether the changes in Egypt represent the beginning of the end for Middle East autocracy, a rearranging of the guard or even an Islamist revival, the question of what happens to the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and others remains open. Although Mubarak has vowed to remain in Egypt for the moment, rumoured destinations for him and his family range from Saudi Arabia, to where the Tunisian tyrant Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has already fled, to Britain. This raises the question whether it is better to allow dictators to retire peacefully and enjoy their ill-gotten gains, in return for standing aside, or whether it is important to prosecute them fully, even if this means that they are more likely to cling to power.

From a moral perspective, the answer is relatively straightforward. If the international community is at all serious about enforcing human rights then those who have engaged in repression and unlawful usurpation of power, such as Hosni Mubarak and other Arab autocrats, should face punishment. Furthermore, the obligation to bring former tyrants to justice is so great that it overrides any considerations of sovereignty, jurisdiction or amnesty. The House of Lords judgment in 1998 that Augusto Pinochet could be extradited to Spain, and the establishment of the International Criminal Court four years later, followed this principle.

In contrast, some theorists, such as Professor Jane Curry of Santa Clara University, have argued that such a hardline approach is too simplistic, and may prolong crises by discouraging autocratic leaders from leaving office lest they face prosecution. Indeed, Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University, author of the forthcoming book The Dictator's Handbook, contends that, "the ability to grant amnesty in the face of a credible threat that the dictator is about to be overthrown is the smart thing to do".

Bueno de Mesquita argues that presenting autocrats with a face-saving alternative to clinging to power might even save lives, because they would then have "less reason to be severely oppressive".

However, even when viewed solely in utilitarian terms, such "pragmatism" comes with its own drawbacks. Game theory suggests that encouraging current dictators to leave office by making retirement more attractive will also encourage future dictators to seize power, by lowering the risk that they will face prosecution. Given that 60 countries, representing nearly a third of the world's population, are (according to Freedom House) only "partly free", and therefore at risk of moving further into totalitarianism, this should be a grave concern. There is also the possibility that lenient treatment may allow dictators to regroup and mount a comeback, like Joaquín Balaguer in the Dominican Republic.

Even Bueno de Mesquita admits that his suggestions need to be treated cautiously. In particular, he warns that allowing leaders to leave with their loot may give them a green light to plunder during their stay in office. He also confesses that, on a personal level, he "would not be happy" with dictators enjoying an opulent retirement. And he believes that immunity from arrest should come only if they fulfil conditions, such as a speedy and painless exit, rather than be offered as a matter of course.

Ultimately, Mubarak's failing health may mean that the debate over whether he should be prosecuted for the crimes committed during his regime becomes moot. However, any impression that Britain and the United States are happy to let dictators enjoy an opulent life after office will not be viewed positively in the region, and may encourage those in the military and security services to make their own bid for power.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.