International Security

Why Didn’t Qaddafi go into exile?

Oct 25 '11

Below are some thoughts on Qaddafi’s death and his decision not to seek exile from Barbara Walter, a professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego. Professor Walter is a renowned expert on internal wars and terrorism and has published several outstanding books and articles on these topics as well as issues of bargaining, cooperation, and reputation more generally. We are glad to share her views here.

One of the many puzzles surrounding Muammar Qaddafi was his refusal to go into exile. Once NATO intervened on behalf of the rebels and Tripoli fell, Qaddafi must have known that he would eventually lose the war and that this would mean death. Instead of leaving the country, he decided to stay.

Why? One surprising answer has to do with the International Criminal Court. It used to be that exile was an attractive long-term option for dictators to take. Rather than stay and fight, they could live their lives in wealth and comfort in beautiful and stable places such as Paris or the Bahamas.

This changed as more and more countries ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Now seeking asylum is no longer easy or particularly attractive. Dictators can try to convince countries such as France, Britain, Venezuela, Mexico or Spain to let them settle in their capital cities or along their coastlines. But since all have ratified Rome, moving there is tantamount to turning oneself in to be prosecuted for war crimes. Qaddafi could seek refuge in countries that have not yet ratified Rome, such as the United States or Cuba or Zimbabwe or Sudan or Saudi Arabia. But those countries are either unwilling to accept him (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) or unable to credibly commit to protecting him over time (Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan). How long could Qaddafi trust that the current regime in Cuba or Zimbabwe will remain in power to protect him?

There is evidence that Qaddafi considered different exile options as early as March of this year. And yet he stayed until his death last week. We will never know exactly what went through Qaddafi’s head in the last year of his life. Part of what drove him to fight to the end was almost certainly an exaggerated love of power and risk. But part of what drove him was also likely to be careful calculations about his alternatives. What Qaddafiís behavior reveals is a potentially unexpected and unfortunate side-effect of an increasingly successful ICC. By limiting the options nasty dictators have to seek exile, it is increasingly forcing them to stay. And by forcing them to stay, it could, inadvertently, be encouraging war.