Try the scoundrels

December 19, 1991

Erich Honecker, the former dictator of the former East Germany, has become a pathetic figure. Old, sick with cancer, exiled from his homeland, he is presently holed up in the Chilean embassy in Moscow, hoping the North Koreans might give him refuge. No one really wants him -- no one, that is, except the Germans, who want to put him on trial for ordering the shooting of desperate people trying to scale the now fallen Berlin Wall.

It is possible that Honecker may have committed crimes against humanity as defined in treaties and conventions and at the international tribunals. If that's the case, Honecker should be tried under international law, not the law of one nation.

But if Honecker is to be tried, why should we allow other dictators to flee their countries, often with enraged mobs hot on their heels, to live in luxury as expatriates? For years Ferdinand Marcos lived in luxury in Hawaii. Today Alfredo Stroessner, the longtime dictator of Paraguay, lives well in Brazil. Jean-Claude Duvalier, the second-generation dictator of Haiti, lives in France. Each of these men had hands every bit as bloody as Honecker's.

Is it asking too much of a world which pays lip service to the rule of law to establish minimum standards of conduct by heads of state? No doubt such definitions would have to begin on a modest scale. But surely there is behavior which all civilized people can agree is criminal. The use of torture should be on the list. Likewise, the maiming of children and the persecution of people solely for religious or ethnic reasons.

Yes, bring Erich Honecker to justice. But let us not be so hypocritical that we ignore the crimes of those we perceived to be "friends." What could be a greater deterrent to incipient dictators than the knowledge that once they have been driven from protected lairs, they might face the justice of a civilized world?

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