WATERLOO (ONTARIO): When Henry Kissinger received the Nobel peace prize, comedian Tom Lehrer quipped that "satire had become obsolete". Something similar could be said about the proposal on the table to declare General Suharto, who died recently, National Hero of Indonesia. Pol Pot, one of the great villains of the past century, may have been responsible for fewer deaths than the Indonesian dictator, who ruled that archipelago nation with an iron fist for 32 years, presiding over at least two massacres that should put him next to the Cambodian peasant leader in the great gallery of rogues of our time.

The first, shortly after the coup that brought him to power in 1965 (so well rendered in Tom Weir's film The Year of Living Dangerously) led to the killing of half a million of his country-men; the second, in 1975, to the deaths of 100,000 East Timorese, after the Indonesian invasion to thwart that Portuguese colony's independence. In that great gallery of rogues, the portrait of General Suharto ought to have pride of place next to those of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. They all self-servingly saw themselves as 'development dictators', that is strongmen whose priority was to bring progress and growth to their countries. They did nothing of the sort.

An encouraging recent trend has been the emergence of 'universal jurisdiction' for human rights violations. The creation, through the 1998 Rome Treaty, already ratified by 105 states, of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and, previously, of the Special Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the one for Rwanda, has meant that we now have individual accountability for gross human rights violations.

It used to be that once dictators were ousted, they simply took off to a pleasant foreign destination to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth. This is what Cuba's Fulgencio Batista did in 1959 by flying off to Spain; Uganda's Idi Amin in 1979 fled to Saudi Arabia; and Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier absconded to the South of France in 1986. A wag has even suggested setting up a special dictator's island in the South Pacific, where former tyrants can retire peacefully.

However, after Pinochet's arrest in London in October 1998, and his 16-month stay there in preventive detention, in response to an extradition request by a Spanish judge, the world is no longer a safe place for dictators. That was the first time a former head of state was arrested abroad for crimes committed at home. Shortly thereafter, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was extradited from Belgrade to The Hague to stand trial for his war crimes.

Why did Suharto get away? He epitomised a certain type of third world tyrant, who came to power in coups against Left leaders with the full support of the US. He also lived to 86 years spending close to a decade out of power, a period during which he withstood all sorts of humiliations, including many lawsuits, which he fended off claiming ill health. Ultimately, the secret to Suharto's impunity was the sheer scale of his misdeeds. This is why there was never a chance for him to end up in the dock in The Hague. The next step in universal human rights jurisdiction is to apply it not only to relatively small countries like Chile and Serbia, but also to larger ones like Indonesia.

While African and Latin American dictators have been accused of thousands or, in some cases, of tens of thousands of killings and 'disappearances', none of them reached the magnitude of Suharto's rule, where the estimates of victims range from 750,000 to two million.

It is in lining his own pocket, however, that Suharto really set new standards. According to a 2004 Transparency International report, he and his family embezzled between $15 and $35 billion. This would make him the greatest kleptocrat of all time. With a title like that, who needs the comparatively puny one of National Hero of Indonesia?

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.