As the Arab spring turns violent, several leaders find themselves facing a judicial process, or the prospect of one. It's a welcome change for a region where political crimes have routinely gone unpunished.
Amid revolts, Mladic's arrest is a reminder to lawless leaders
The arrest of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, 16 years after he masterminded the massacre of some 8,000 Muslims trapped in the town of Srebrenica, is instructive for the Middle East. As the so-called "Arab spring" turns increasingly violent, several Arab leaders who had ordered their forces to violently repress dissent find themselves facing a judicial process, or the prospect of one. This is virtually unheard of in a region where political crimes have routinely gone unpunished.
The International Criminal Court recently sought the arrest of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al Islam and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al Senussi, for crimes against humanity. Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, may face a domestic court for his handling of opposition rallies earlier this year. And while legal action has not been taken against Syrian President Bashar al Assad for the brutal crushing of demonstrations in Syria, he and other regime figures have been sanctioned by the United States and Europe, and no one can seriously discount the possibility that the United Nations Security Council will eventually refer them to the ICC.
An expanded application of human rights norms and justice has finally reached the Middle East. Yet the first warning shots came years ago, before this season of Arab revolt. In 2005, the UN Security Council set up an international investigation following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. This later led to the creation of a mixed international-Lebanese tribunal to try the suspects, with expectations at the time that it might ultimately point the finger at senior Syrian officials, as well as others.
Another much-publicised case was the ICC's issuing of an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in March 2009, accusing him of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. It was the first time that the body had indicted a sitting head of state (although Slobodan Milosevic had also faced indictment while in office by the special tribunal for the former Yugoslavia).
The two processes have generated some controversy. Years on, the tribunal dealing with the Hariri killing has yet to issue any formal accusations. Mr al Bashir's indictment, in turn, has been opposed by states and regional organisations, including the Arab League and the African Union. While the outcomes will have a bearing on public approval of the widening boundaries of justice, these boundaries have undeniably been broadened during the past decade in the Arab world.
Is that a good thing? Legal purists would argue that the nature of justice, specifically the integrity of its institutions and practices, is as important as identifying and punishing the guilty. In other words a more universal implementation of justice is laudable when international legal norms and forms are respected. No doubt, but when it comes to affecting the behaviour of leaders, even more unsavoury legal retribution can sometimes serve a useful purpose.
Take the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president. Critics justifiably condemned it as a mockery of justice. The post-Baath Iraqi leadership missed a golden opportunity to showcase Saddam's cruelty. And yet even that rough revenge reminded Arab leaders of the perils of hubris. When the Iraqi leader directed the butchery and deportation of Kurds during the Anfal operations of 1988, or the suppression of the Shiites after the Gulf war of 1991, he could never have imagined that he would one day answer for both. He did, and since then it has been more difficult for Arab autocrats to contemplate mass killing without worrying about payback.
The proliferation of media is one reason for this. Technologically, it is much easier for information to circulate, and therefore for news of abuse to reach a global audience. Col Qaddafi's onslaught against Benghazi was a useful illustration of the fact. Western democracies were simply unwilling to stand by and permit carnage in the city, fully aware that this would go viral worldwide, and that the backlash would ultimately be directed against them for their indolence.
However, media coverage tells only half the story. Ideas remain at the heart of the fundamental change in Arab attitudes when it comes to the misdeeds of rulers. Syrians are not braving bullets and torture just because they know their endeavours will be posted online and generate sympathy abroad. They are doing so in the name of abstract concepts such as liberty, emancipation, democracy, a rejection of systematic fear and corruption, and much else. That Mr al Assad and his family should have lorded over Syria for so long has become an insult to most Syrians, a blight on their sense of self-respect.
And it is such abstract ideas that are at the heart of the expanded Arab awareness of injustice - therefore of justice. The impetus may have come from outside; it may be very imperfectly expressed, and very unevenly applied across the Middle East. But for the regional upheaval to retain momentum, it must consolidate in Arab minds a determination that human life has autonomous value and that this must be protected by clearly stated laws. For the first time in decades, individuals from Tunisia to Yemen to Syria to Egypt to Libya have openly expressed outrage with the lawlessness of their leaders.
The essence of justice is memory; it is about remembering the wrong that was done. Memory is what allowed Mr Mladic to be caught more than a decade and a half after Srebrenica. In contrast, the Lebanese ended their civil war by whitewashing most wartime leaders. Such amnesia jars with this revolutionary Arab moment. Justice may or may not prevail in the region, but if it is to prevail, then we should welcome the novel refusal of societies to let bygones be bygones.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle