In an effort to break the stalemate in Libya and avoid further bloodshed, President Obama asked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month to tell Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi that he will remain alive if he leaves Libya. Medvedev, in a news conference, said Russia would not take him in.
The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, who certainly belong in The Hague — but at what cost?
Obama wants to avoid a repeat of the four-month battle to dislodge Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo. Thousands of civilians were killed, at least 800,000 were forced from their homes, and that country’s financial capital and largest city, Abidjan, was laid to waste.
Neither the United Nations secretary general nor the French military was able to talk Gbagbo out of his bunker. Facing the prospect of life in prison, he felt that he had no choice but to fight to the bitter end. Had they been able to offer Gbagbo a way out, the standoff might have ended months earlier. The way out would have been permanent exile.
Is it possible that the international community could send a dictator such as Gbagbo or Gaddafi somewhere and ensure that they never return? What is needed is a place so remote and well guarded that these unsavory characters could never escape.
In 1815, Europe had a similar problem. Napoleon Bonaparte was responsible for 17 years of devastating wars across Europe that took the lives of as many as 6 million people. He had escaped from his exile on the island of Elba, in the Mediterranean, and was able to raise an army of 200,000 before his final defeat at Waterloo.
To ensure that he never again returned, Britain exiled Napoleon to St. Helena, a territory in the middle of the South Atlantic. One of the most remote islands on the planet, it is more than a thousand miles from the nearest land.
St. Helena remains incredibly isolated, with no commercial airport (although one is planned) and just over 4,000 inhabitants, a 20 percent decline in the past decade. Blue Hill district, on the southwest part of the island, has an area of 14 square miles with only 153 inhabitants and seems like an ideal spot for what might be called a retirement village for exiled dictators.
Britain, which still owns St. Helena, could lease a parcel of land to the United Nations, whose blue-helmeted guards would be in charge of security. The United Nations could erect a comfortable cottage, or perhaps a large tent, separated from the rest of the island by tall stockade fencing. Gaddafi could get snail mail (which would be read by guards, as is the case in most prisons), but there would be no Internet or phone service.
Gaddafi could bring along immediate family members: his spouse and children. Napoleon arrived on St. Helena with a small cadre of supporters who were forced to sign a document committing them to remain on the island with him indefinitely. (Napoleon’s wife chose to stay in France, where she had a well-publicized affair with an Austrian count who was her escort, much to Napoleon’s dismay.)
Of course, dictators such as Gaddafi should not get a free pass. Exile to St. Helena should be offered to break only the most intractable sieges. The U.N. Security Council has the authority to prevent the International Criminal Court from prosecuting a case. Justice would be better served if Gaddafi and his ilk ended up at The Hague. But the international community has an even higher obligation to protect the lives of innocent civilians and to prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction.
St. Helena could work with Hotel California rules: You can check in but you can never check out. Gaddafi would be destined to die there in quiet retirement. For sure, it would be a great place for penning memoirs, and following in Napoleon’s footsteps would lend a certain cachet.
Another requirement would be total divestment of financial assets of dictators and their family members. Every offshore account and every piece of real estate in London or Dubai would be forfeited, with the money going back to the treasury of their home country. St. Helena would be all-inclusive, so there would be no need to carry cash.
Gaddafi might turn out to be the only dictator to end up on St. Helena. With so many worthy candidates, however, and doubtless many more to come, it is possible that St. Helena could get a much-needed economic boost from new residents.
The real objective in all this would be to avoid the kind of bloodshed and devastation the world witnessed in Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, it continues in Libya.
The writer is executive director of the Center for International Policy in Washington.