What happens, from the perspective of international law and human rights accountability, after authoritarian leaders are ousted? All attention is on the fervor of social revolutions, as people take to the streets, unexpectedly overturning the ruling elite and demanding dramatic change and justice. But as the post-Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen all vividly illustrate, what comes next? When people are compelled to use violence to elicit historic change in governance, should they be held accountable to the same degree as those ruling by coercion?
A democratically embedded rule of law cannot limit accountability to authoritarian leaders and their conspirators. It must extend unequivocally to anyone violating international human rights and humanitarian laws. In Libya, for example, this means members of the militia who committed egregious wrongs, recently granted immunity by a new law in Libya. Thus, Human Rights Watch immediately warned that accountability via universal jurisdiction remains a distinct possibility.
Despite the previous regime’s crimes, aspiring democracies and the Western governments supporting them must pursue accountability fairly and apolitically—prosecuting, as necessary, anyone who cross the Rubicon to violate basic human rights—however seemingly just the cause. It’s a minimum requirement for the rule of law to converge with democratic governance, at least at the level of principle.
Groups may still choose to pursue violence in the name of social revolution, removing entrenched authoritarian regimes; but they should do so knowingly, accepting the full weight of international legal accountability.