Even as protests against authoritarian leaders continue across much of the Arab world, Tunisia and Egypt are already preparing to bring their former dictators to justice. The Tunisian justice minister, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, is reportedly preparing as many as 44 charges -- including conspiring against the state, drug use and trafficking, and voluntary manslaughter -- against Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country in January, and his family. Last week, Egyptian prosecutors detained Hosni Mubarak and several family members and former government officials on charges of corruption. As Tunisia and Egypt consider how far to go with arrests and trials, Foreign Affairs is pleased to bring you select articles from our archives that grapple with how post-authoritarian nations have dealt with deposed regimes in the past, and how they should do so in the future.

"Overcoming the Legacies of Dictatorship." By Tina Rosenberg. Foreign Affairs 74, no. 3 (1995): 134-52.

In the 1980s and 1990s, countries in Latin America and eastern Europe were wrestling with democratic transitions similar to Tunisia's and Egypt's today. In this 1995 essay, Tina Rosenberg writes that "one of the first questions a newly democratic nation must face is that of what to do with its old dictators . . . whether and how to investigate tyranny's legacy, try its leaders, and purge its bureaucrats." Far from an obvious choice, the decision of who to target usually depends on the type of dictatorial system, the crimes it committed, and the level of citizen participation in the regime. Rosenberg warns, however, that broad truth commissions, trials of top leaders, and purges of regime loyalists are all important pieces of overcoming dictatorship and that not going far enough crosses the line into new injustice.

"Truth and Consequences." By Jonathan D. Tepperman. Foreign Affairs 81, no. 2 (2002): 128-45.

In recent decades, truth commissions have become a popular way for "newly minted leaders to show their democratic bona fides and curry favor with the international community," Jonathan Tepperman writes in his 2002 essay. Critics of truth commissions claim that they fail to address structural problems and may distract from the prosecution and punishment of crimes. Many are also skeptical that such investigations could ever come to an objective "truth" or aid reconciliation. Truth commissions are, of course, imperfect, Tepperman concedes, but they can be designed to overcome the first two problems. And as the truth commission in South Africa showed, "well-designed truth commissions, embedded in some larger political process, can make a crucial contribution to history, justice, and democracy" -- and may do just that in Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps Libya, as the countries face their legacies of oppression.

"Milosevic in the Hague." By Gary J. Bass. Foreign Affairs 82, no. 3 (2003): 82-96.

In this 2003 essay, Gary Bass describes what happens when a deposed dictator goes on trial. Although former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic died before his tribunal for crimes against humanity ended, the trial at the time was seen as possible watershed for international justice, determining how all deposed dictators would be handled in the future. Although war crimes tribunals often drag on without any clear conclusions, Bass asserts that they may still be the least bad way to deal with figures such as Milosevic, Ben Ali, or Mubarak. And the political benefits of putting a leader on trial are many, including sidelining dangerous leaders and soothing victims. "Now that Milosevic is out of Serbian politics, he is on his way to becoming a nobody," Bass writes. Serbians "may watch with resentment, or with opening minds, but few really care. The Serbian public is vastly more concerned with the country's decrepit economy, crime, and corruption than with Milosevic's fate. The tyrant has become irrelevant."

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now