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A Field Guide to the UN General Assembly

Know Your Dictator

by NADIA HIJAB

As the United Nations General Assembly convenes this week, a high-level parade of actual and aspiring dictators arrives in New York City. This is a good time for people of conscience to reflect on how to deal with dictators.

The U.S. government appears to have found a way that works for it: Libya is a case in point. Having long treated it as a pariah high on the terrorist list, the United States began to rehabilitate Colonel Muammar Qaddafi after 2003, when Libya agreed not to seek nuclear weapons and to pay compensation for its implication in such crimes as Lockerbie.

The world will be seeing a lot of Libya this week. It was elected to hold the presidency of this year’s General Assembly and will preside over the high-level meetings. Qaddafi will participate in the historic Security Council summit chaired by Barack Obama. Yet there are few perceptible reforms within Libya itself as he celebrates his 40th year in power.

Many of us may find it difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong in such situations. How far should human rights advocates push their governments? Who decides when to protect a population, how, and at what cost? In the month leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, many well-intentioned people, even those who expressed doubts about the Bush war objectives, said, "Saddam Hussein is a terrible dictator; we owe it to the Iraqis to do something."

Those who still think so should probably take a moment to read the eloquent statement by Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at Bush and who was just released from prison. Iraqis were well aware of the oppression they lived under, he said, but the invasion and occupation has "divided one brother from another …. It turned our homes into never-ending funeral tents. And our graveyards spread into parks and roadsides. It is a plague."

Clearly, invasion and occupation are not the way to deal with dictatorship. So what can ordinary citizens do?

Well, first, define your dictator. Respectable human rights organizations — ones that are not seen as Western-funded or guided — should come together to compile a citizen’s Good Government Index and rank governments accordingly. There are, of course, "freedom indices" that rank states based on some civil and political rights. The GGI would be broader and cover issues like corruption as well as progress in achieving development goals.

No country would score full marks. For example, accusations of fraud in elections would apply not just to Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but also to the United States and George W. Bush. Similarly, the Arab world is not the only region where leaders pass power on to sons while people remain fairly powerless.

A state would not be allowed to claim the mantle of democracy if it privileges some ethnic or religious groups or is responsible for prolonged violations of human rights through occupation, as is the case of Israel. Acts of rendition and torture would count for something too.

Second, narrow the dictator’s reach. States that do not score above 60 per cent on the GGI should not be considered for election to the Human Rights Council or to lead other world bodies. Concerned citizens would need to lobby to ensure that their countries vote only for states that rank higher on the index.

States really value international recognition. For example, in the heated race to head UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, scientific, and cultural organization, Egypt is bringing its full weight to bear behind its former minister of culture. Arab press reports even claim that Egypt is promising to be "neutral" on settlements just to get Israel to withdraw its reservations.

Third, do business, but not as usual. No amount of internal repression will stop governments and corporations from doing business with non-democratic regimes. What concerned citizens should do is limit normal business dealings partly through citizen boycotts and partly by lobbying and media outreach. At a minimum, there should be a push for an arms boycott against repressive states.

For the GGI to work, citizens need to be better informed about foreign policy on an ongoing basis, not just when their country launches an invasion in their name. While there is more information available than ever, the realities of daily life intrude. That’s where a well-designed index produced by respected organizations would help. There have been some attempts to produce such an index. Since the number of dictators is growing, these attempts are worth pursuing.

NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.